The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman can follow the plot. He's lucky.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy falls victim to the thing that, for some reason, seems to sink a lot of spy movies for me: in its rush to get into the espionage, it fundamentally fails at establishing characters and scenarios. Based on John le Carre's classic novel, the film takes some shortcuts in the storytelling department that end up undermining the drama. If you've read le Carre's book (which I have not), that won't be a problem since you'll already understand who everyone is and what's going on. If you go in cold, you may well be as confused and frustrated as I was.

Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired British intelligence agent brought back into the fold to help ferret out a double agent who is working for the Soviets. It is believed that the guilty party is one of four high-ranking individuals working within “the Circus”: Director of Operations Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), and Senior Officials Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). The film's title refers to the nicknames given the men by “Control” (John Hurt), the chief of the Circus. With the help of right-hand man Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley observes and gathers information, following a trail that seems to be forever twisting on itself. But when a field agent named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) steps forward with some details, the case appears ready to be cracked wide open. This is a vastly simplified plot description, to say the least.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has some very admirable qualities. The performances are strong across the board, with Gary Oldman, in particular, doing effective work. I like the laconic, weary manner in which he portrays Smiley. There's also a nice period vibe, both in terms of the physical look and the overall tone. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has certainly made a film that feels classy.

My gripe comes not from anything visibly on the screen; it comes from the way those things are presented. How all of the pieces of the Circus and its players fit together is glossed over. The movie begins with a botched operation that leaves dead bodies in its wake. It didn't seem clear to me what the operation was staged for, which in turn meant that the repercussions of its failure were not clear either. Then the story jumps into the Circus, where Alleline and the others talk and strategize. Smiley goes digging. He talks about things he is looking for, and throws around terminology that is only scarcely, if ever, defined. Ricki Tarr shows up out of nowhere with a story about a Russian woman who claims to have important information. The movie goes into flashbacks, which only create more confusion about what's going on and why. By the final half hour, I was ready to throw something at the screen. Bad movies I can deal with. Impenetrable ones I cannot. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not a bad movie, but I absolutely found it impenetrable.

In an era when so many movies have dumbed-down plots, you may be thinking that I should not fault this one for being too smart or ambitious in its storytelling. That's true. But I can fault it for not giving me enough information to reasonably follow the story. Some of my favorite movies are extremely complicated (Inception and The Usual Suspects spring to mind), yet I had no trouble following them because they did a good job of providing the things I'd need to become invested in the events. TTSS is indeed a smart movie. I admire that. There is, however, a trust that audience members make with a film. Part of that trust is clarity. We trust that if the story is going to enter complex territory, it will give us sufficient details to make all the necessary connections. A film needn't lead us by the hand; it simply needs to provide a readable map, so to speak. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy doesn't thoroughly introduce the suspects, nor does it provide enough specifics about the operation of the Circus. The result – for me, at least – was an inability to follow the story and, consequently, a lack of urgency to Smiley's quest to find the double agent.

On the Blu-Ray release of his under-appreciated thriller Mimic, director Guillermo Del Toro says that suspense is built when the audience knows what's going to happen before the characters do. In other words, we grasp the stakes and the perils while the people on screen are still trying to figure things out. Certainly the idea of a double agent in a national intelligence agency is a perilous situation. In fact, we see several individuals die in the attempt to keep the truth from coming out. The problem is that the dangers aren't always apparent in advance. Events would take place, and I'd think, “Gee, I guess that was important.” Had I grasped earlier whose lives were at stake and why, I think I'd have cared a lot more than I did. Again, it's a matter of the film not wanting to take the time to establish all the relevant information. LeCarre's novel is long, I'm told, and trying to squeeze everything into two hours creates a logjam.

Looking back, I realize that what I've written probably sounds more like a bitch session than a movie review. So be it. That was my experience with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Might as well be honest about it. I suspect many others will have a similar experience. A fellow film critic told me that, at his screening, “who's who” cards were being handed out to explain the backgrounds of the characters, as well as some of the terminology used in the film. Would I have liked TTSS more had I studied one of those cards first? Hard to say. But if you have to literally give the audience a cheat sheet to understand what's going on, I'd say the movie has failed on some fundamental level.

( out of four)

Note: I briefly considered studying that cheat sheet and screening the film a second time to see if it helped. I may do that at some point, but I ultimately decided not to before writing up my thoughts. Why? Partially because it's the busy end-of-year season, when so many films must be seen and written about, and partially because I don't suspect the average moviegoer will have the opportunity to study the cheat sheet. If I ever decide to give TTSS a return visit – and if I change my mind – you can be sure I'll write about it here.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.

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