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.