A rhetorician’s thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I used to write movie reviews for a community college newspaper. I still think the popular movie review is an interesting genre, and I still enjoy reading people like J. Hoberman and Ebert, but, honestly, an overdose of thinking about rhetoric has sort of ruined the thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down, three-out-four-stars way of assessing movies for me. That is, while I still really like some movies and loathe others, I find myself thinking not in terms of how innately good or bad they are, but how effective or ineffective, in what ways, why, and for whom.

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last weekend with some friends, also rhet-comp PhDs. I’ll say plainly that I loved it. I thought it was beautifully acted, shot, scored, etc., etc., and that it was completely refreshing to see a spy movie without a single explosion, car chase, or cringe-worthy one-liner. The casting of Gary Oldman as George Smily, John Le Carré’s sober and wizened British intel man and demure star of many smart, understated novels, was an especially well-conceived stroke. I can’t help but compare Oldman to Alec Guinness, who played the role in the BBC miniseries (also great) of Tinker Tailer. And Oldman compares favorably.

A friend of mine who went along found the movie as beautiful and well-crafted as I did, but also baffling. Little wonder: It’s a dense 350-page novel (which comprises little action and a lot of walking around, meeting in discreet locations, and talking) packed into two hours and change. While understated, the movie moves fast, very fast. (Even the miniseries, at nearly 300 minutes, hardly drags.) Given running time the filmmakers were apparently shooting for, they did a good job of packing the whole story in there without oversimplifying, but I, had I not already watched the miniseries and read one of Le Carré’s other George Smiley novels (Smiley’s People – another tense, plotty, and totally enjoyable thing without many gunfights or motorcycle chases), would also have been baffled. I had a hard time following some scenes anyway.

So, now I’m thinking about audience. Few American audiences, it seems, will stand for really long movies – say, three-hours-plus – which is what TTSS probably should have been. It would have been nice to see some of the details teased out through longer scenes, especially since the few longish scenes director Tomas Alfredson and company did include were so completely and mesmerizingly beautiful. It’s a movie that should have been slowed down, but one facing a market that disparages lengthiness, bloatedness, inflatedness – it’s nearly impossible to think of a synonym without harsh connotations. The exceptions, oddly enough, are usually the King Kongs and Lords of the Rings, movies that drag on but pack in the spectacle to stave off boredom. Movies that really need to be long to address their content – those are harder to justify as three-hour entities.

A pity for TTSS. But again, I stand by it – thumbs up, four stars, and all that – because I find its narrative (hastened as it is), characters, and style so refreshing and smart. Another point I want to raise here is that of intertexuality. Byron Hawk, in an interesting essay on “hyperrhetoric” (a term I only sort of get, though I gather it has to do with rhetoric about rhetoric and texts about texts) and The Fifth Element talks about his own ironic reading of that movie based on references to other sci-fi films he saw embedded in the narrative (see Blakesly, ed., The Terministic Screen, a pretty cool collection on rhetoric and film, with a solid contribution from rhet-comp people). Similarly, for me at least, it seems that TTSS makes sense most coherently as a dialogic riposte to the James Bond and Jack Ryan movies that make the Cold War exciting, glorious, and sexy. There’s nothing cold about that Cold War, but in TTSS, the war’s coldness really comes through – and it sucks. TTSS drains the glory from its espionage and reveals a much more sobering picture of how deeply, cruelly shitty the Cold War was, with its practitioners’ lives – both professional and personal – gutted by betrayal, mistrust, and boredom. George Smiley, one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, is Bond’s opposite: both are smart, but Smiley is a meek, glasses-wearing cuckold who never drives fast, only rarely carries a gun, and sees much of his sad self in his counterparts beyond the Berlin Wall. Form suits content, too: the delicate camerawork and quiet score are the antithesis of the Bond franchise’s quick cuts and sultry theme songs set to writhing silhouettes.

All these factors amount the idea of an “emergent ethos” in film that I write about in my MA thesis: a powerful movie develops a character – not simply the director’s, nor the star’s – that you can almost put a face to. Though, in this case, it’s hard not to conjure the face of Oldman’s Smily as a stand-in for all that the movie comes to be, to represent, and to oppose. Those sad, blues eyes, magnified by those think lenses, and all the quiet but vicious doublecrossing and death they wish they hadn’t seen – the anti-Bond.

6 Replies to “A rhetorician’s thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

  1. I just read your post outloud to my husband. We both loved the film and found your post interesting. on Hawk though…I bet he would like this film too.

  2. Is it the American ticket buyers that won’t support a three hour film or is the theater chain owners that won’t.

    A three hour film likely costs the exhibitors one showing every day. Along with the loss of the concurrent concession items like the overpriced popcorn and drinks.

    Indian cinema routinely runs close to three hours, and baseball games quite often are even more lengthy. Of course the Indian films likely have an intermission and baseball games have an intermission between each half inning.

    However if the additional hour and change is simple padding with out merit or worth than you’re right.

    1. Good thoughts — thanks for the reply. I think it would be wrong not to implicate theater chains and their financial interests, but also wrong to say that ticket-buyers have no effect on the way movies are crafted. There’s push and pull all around: Theaters can refuse to screen long movies because they think they won’t be profitable, moviegoers can refuse to go to movies they think would be too long or dull, and, of course, filmmakers can defy expectations and make long movies that succeed financially in spite or (or hell, maybe even because of) their length. Film conventions don’t derive from any single source of pressure. In the case of TTSS, it seemed pretty apparent to me, though, that the filmmakers, the studio, or both, felt pressure to force the story into roughly two hours, even when the content would have suited three.

      The comparisons to Indian film and sports are interesting, though I’m not sure how much we can make of them. Bollywood conventions differ pretty drastically from mainstream Western film, which is why Americans are often baffled when they watch Indian films. They seem (to us, or at least me) to zip between genres (musical, action, comedy, drama) with abandon and go on and on and on; Indian audiences are probably equally baffled by many conventions of American and British film. Bottom line is that Indian filmgoers enter theaters with one set of culturally derived expectations, and Americans with another. I think sports, too, entail a different set of expectations than a film. For whatever reason, we expect sports to last a long time and are okay with it. We make a day of a ball game; a movie is what we see after dinner. Both are ticketed spectators’ events, I suppose, but I think they’re apples and oranges in more ways than one.

  3. i hesitated seeing this film because i so much enjoyed the BBc miniseries with Sir Alec as George Smiley. i always considered that a classic that couldn’t be matched. However, i will give the new film a chance, based on your review.
    i would recommend that you read some of the other LeCarre books with George Smiley as the major character. You mentioned “Smiley”s People”. There are also “Tinker, Tailor” and “The Hounorable Schoolboy” which are the other two parts of the trilogy. Then there is also “Call For the Dead” and “The Secret Pilgrim”, which also involve George but are not part of the trilogy that the film covered. Highly recommended!!

    1. I had similar thoughts initially, and like I say, I do wish they’d taken their time and hashed out the details more fully. Since you’re familiar with the story, though, you should be able to keep up with the plot, hastened as it is, and enjoy some of the movie’s craftsmanship, which really is outstanding. I’m certainly glad I saw it, anyway.

      So far, of Le Carre’s, I’ve only read Smiley’s People and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Loved them both, and I certainly mean to read the rest of the Smiley novels someday. Little time to read for pleasure these days, sadly. Thanks for the recommendations!

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