TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: Hazy Recollections

By Nate Fisher

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – 2011 – dir. Thomas Alfredson

Plot points are forgotten moments after a film ends. We forget most all of it over the next couple days, even with the great movies. Yet the idea that a movie plot should cohere down to its last detail, that every event should have a clearly explained linear causality to the next event remains critical in our understanding of how a movie should function.

So everything has to be explained, a series of little events have to take place and each has to be enumerated and documented with utmost explanation as to its relation to each and every other event. Nonsense. Plot coherence is something we demand as viewers because we need to overcome the fear that our time is being wasted before we allow ourselves to be affected. We remember and are moved by human interaction, the soul of the drama, the thoughts and deeds of characters. The rest is distraction.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of those rare films that couldn’t care less for the conceits of plot. So the filmmakers take it in a different direction. They allow the story to flow in new, exciting ways by liberating the edit from storytelling conventions. With its newfound freedom the edit achieves two exciting things:

The first is a sharp reorientation of the viewer’s sense of perception. Many other films are only able to survive as stories by providing the audience choice information that no single character could know. The director becomes a despot who controls what we see and how we see it. His understanding of a scene or story becomes ours, and we become safe, all-knowing observers. But this is the ultimate spy drama, and therefore none of that shall take place. The experience of seeing through the camera becomes the experience of spying. The privileged position is gone and the viewer must grasp at errant lines of dialog or put a series of facts and events back in the order they happened.

The second revolves around one recurring scene. In all the confusion (both the editing and the story itself) the story gives way more than once to the collective memory of an MI6 party held a few years before. All the key players are there, and the whole party consists of them looking at each other. They dance about the space making eyes, discovering things they shouldn’t. They are spying just as we are spying. We are one of many moving pieces at play trying to get a glimpse of the other while the other isn’t looking. But it comes in fragments, chunks that spill as memory does into the events of the present. This is the great accomplishment of the edit: that the importance given to this event forces a reappraisal of which events truly matter in the course of the narrative. And we soon find out that it is not about the jargon or the spying but rather the subtextual relationships among the characters. The human component of all this matters the most.

Without spoiling much, I can say that every romantic yearning in the film is squelched in the name of espionage. George Smiley’s marriage is utterly wrecked, abused for the gathering of information. One character must send away his lover due to the danger his position poses for the two of them. And still another character is driven by betrayal to impulsively kill his former lover. As the story wears on, the men at the top of MI6 abuse and manipulate one another for information, all the while collectively recalling that party where their bonds of friendship were only beginning to strain. By the end of the film these men are empty shells.

This is why the best moments come from Tom Hardy’s character, the would-be James Bond on a mission with a license to kill. He finds no glory and no intrigue in Istanbul, only waiting, voyeurism, and the drab inhumanity of espionage. He tries to get out to avoid being like these men he sees at the top of MI6. But woe to him for forming a human connection with a girl through all this; there is no room for that in spying. And the fact that they’re both somehow involved in the goings-on in Istanbul? The two get resoundingly punished.

I have only seen this movie once: nine months ago when it was first released. I have forgotten much of it since then. But I remember George Smiley’s nostalgic conversations with Connie Sachs. I remember Peter Guillam’s quandary over abandoning his lover for his job. I remember Ricky Tarr and Irina and the brief moments of freedom they shared. I remember the final moments of the film, a blood-soaked montage capped by a tear-stained bullet fired from one lover into another. And I remember every moment where the plot gave way and the relationships among the characters shined through.

Watch this with The Godfather in mind. This is an equally compelling film about the extent to which sad men have to sacrifice those they love in order to end up defined by their job. And it too ends in a montage of bloodshed.