Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy tells the story of George Smiley, a semi-retired British intelligence agent recalled by his boss in the early 1970s to investigate a Russian mole planted in the top ranks of Smiley’s former employer MI-6. His task is fraught with confusion from the get-go. Known internally as the “circus,” MI-6 has a weak immune reaction to their intelligence leak, and transforms from a potent intelligence apparatus to an asylum for paranoia. Director Tomas Alfredson throws us into a fog, and it’s only at the end of the movie that the sky begins to clear up.
Through a series of flashbacks and parallel narratives, the movie — adapted from John le Carré’s classic spy novel — chronicles Smiley’s investigation of the circumstances surrounding Operation Testify, an attempt by MI-6 to find the Soviet Union’s mole inside British intelligence. The operation culminates in a meeting in Budapest between agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and a defecting Hungarian general, who possesses ostensible knowledge of the mole’s identity.
The movie begins with scenes from the mission. Prideaux is shot in the back by Hungarian agents shortly after leaving his meeting, which turns out to have been a setup. Buccaneer field agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) soon enters the picture. We learn that it was Tarr who originally acquired knowledge of the mole and tipped off Oliver Lacon (John Hurt), the civil service intelligence agent who assigned Smiley to the task. But Tarr obtained this information through a love affair with the wife of a Soviet agent, creating a conflict of interest that influences his later actions. With Tarr on his side, Smiley enlists Peter Guillam, Tarr’s immediate superior, in a spy operation against the top four members of the circus. Their code names are the title of the movie.But the new team doesn’t operate smoothly. Personality faults strain communication and provide a sub-context that casts doubt on many of their actions. Tarr has his love affair, which he hopes to continue if Smiley can pull off a swap of agents with the Russians. Guillam, a dweeby, awkward spy, is professionally oriented. He is reluctant to engage in devious activities, even if they are morally upstanding. Smiley is cold. He’s not an engaging protagonist, though his success in his former career as a spy does make him the most interesting professionally. Each seems to possess an agenda of his own.
The viewer only gets a general picture of how these characters ally with one another through scattered, anachronistic recollections. As a consequence, the present remains unclear throughout the narrative. And even when the characters do open up with information or recount a memory of an important event, their stances remain unclear. For instance, it only becomes possible to understand Tarr’s connection to the chain of events after enough details emerge to clarify the relationship between cause and effect. Simliarly, Smiley conceals his intentions, and his stoic demeanor suggests little prior disposition towards his former colleagues. He negotiates with his teammates obliquely, providing them with enough information but remaining at arm’s length. Because of the general sense of mistrust, personal conflicts and the nature of espionage, very little information in the movie is reliable.“Everything the circus thinks is gold is shit,” one of the top agents admits later in the movie. It’s true, we learn. The viewer joins Smiley in his task to swim to the bottom of this shit, but the account is impersonal. We’re treated like a fellow-spy. Alfredson’s visual and audio techniques assist in this mission. From across the street or in adjacent buildings, we see characters meeting. While this makes for a captivating cinematographic experience, it makes events difficult to interpret. The transition between scenes is choppy, leaving the viewer guessing what event or time period the narrative has just entered. If one feels like an outsider, it’s only because that’s what a spy is: an outsider, privy only to the information he or she gathers or is granted access to. Above all, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy portrays an organization sickened by mistrust. The film examines the problems bound to arise in an agency committed to a national purpose, but whose currency of communication is necessarily clandestine.
In a 2008 essay in The New Yorker, Le Harpe, a former British spy, reflected on the general attitude he encountered while working for the British security service MI-5 and its emergence in his fiction. “The superbug of espionage madness is not confined to individual cases. It flourishes in its collective form. It is a homegrown attitude of the industry as a whole. Is a cure at hand? I doubt it,” he wrote.
The disease that Le Harpe describes counts delusion, paranoia and fantasy as some of its most dangerous symptoms. Smiley finds himself in the midst of one of the worst episodes of this plague: members of the agency are definitely paranoid and obsessed with fantasies about the mole’s identity. Le Harpe experienced something similar. In the 1960s, while he was working for MI-6, he weathered a wave of communist paranoia that swept the agency and led to a blood letting. If the events of the story seem muddled, or if Le Harpe remains confused about the events in his own biography, the nature of the disease amongst spy agencies is much clearer.