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Musing on 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

via Wikipedia

I am gradually making my way through last year’s Oscar nominated films, and last night we watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Adapted from John le Carre’s novel of the same name, the film depicts the complex and secretive world of the British spy agency in the Cold War of the 1970s as spy-wars-weary George Smiley tries to uncover the identity of a Russian mole in the top levels of the agency.

The film is a much more slower paced, sobering and realistic portrayal of spy agencies than the Bond or Borne franchises. It reflects a time when these agencies seemed to operate more or less unfettered, something not nearly as possible in the age of camera phones, internet and social media. It made me think about how much these tools have given the public access to and scrutiny of our government actions as much as it has probably made the work of our spy agencies all that more difficult.

It is also a very artful film, the grainy and muted colors of the film lending to the heaviness of the story, time and place—of which the author of the novel apparently had firsthand knowledge (le Carre worked for the British spy agency). And Gary Oldman’s Smiley is a piece of art in and of himself. (It wasn’t until after the movie that I realized Oldman also portrayed one of my favorite characters, Sirius Black, in the Harry Potter films, which speaks to his ability to embody the character he’s given.) Smiley has regrets—personal and professional. While covert wars don’t employ armies and tanks, they are nonetheless wars and Smiley carries a battle scared and experienced view of that world and his profession. He’s the kind of guy you want running a spy agency—or maybe not. He lies as calmly and smoothly as he rolls down a window to allow a trapped bee out of his car. His composed and relentless search for the mole reminded me, with some cringing unease, of the shoulder-shrugging ease of a surgeon calmly and methodically digging through flesh for an almost microscopic bullet fragment.

This is one of those films that sticks with you the next day. It raises thought-provoking and timeless questions about methods used in war (overt and covert) and the effects on the human soul of immersing oneself in a world like that. As one character tells Smiley, “I want a family. I don’t want end up like you lot.” In a grainy and weary world like the one we see in this story, that longing was like a single green tree in the middle of the ash-laden remains of a burned down forest.

Ultimately, the film provokes me to ask, how do I, as a Kingdom dweller, respond to a story like that—to a reality like that? I’m still mulling that one over. It does give me more empathy and respect for brothers and sisters who work in the halls of power, the situations they must encounter, the decisions they must make. These are different times but the questions and situations in this story are still all too real. In a life lived outside those halls, it causes me to think on my choices and how those choices are ultimately small but crucial steps down a path towards a life of growth and restoration or damage and debris.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes us into the gritty dark parts of the world and history. Today feels much brighter by comparison, but perhaps that is just an illusion. In any case, it gives me pause—and that brings it into these open spaces.