Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -- spies, servants and masters

Director: Tomas Alfredson, 2011. (R) 

It’s been almost 40 years since John Le Carre’s book “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was first published. The early 1970s saw the cold war well underway, and the book focused on this espionage drama. In contrast to the flamboyant James Bond spy stories (and movies) which exhude action, gadgets and girls, Carre’s novel is slow and thoughtful, lacking the violence and sex. Its main character George Smiley (Gary Oldman, The Book of Eli) is a gray-haired who is so silent and withdrawn that he could be a tortoise.

I read the book three decades ago and remember it as a terrific novel, full of deep characterization and an elaborate plot. I saw the six-hour BBC mini-series adaptation which was enjoyable and penetrable. However, this 2-hour film is dense and confusing. Filled with at least a dozen crucial characters, the opacity of the plot left me puzzled at the end, wondering exactly what had transpired. It is simply too much story in too little time.

That is not to say the convoluted movie is a total disaster. The director has established a terrific atmosphere, capturing the dinginess of London in the 1970s, with dirty streets and smoky rooms. The cast is a whos who of top British talent, including Oldman, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Ciarin Hinds. Indeed, Oldman earned an Academy Award nomination for this role in which he says little and retains a stoic, almost expressionless face. Without disrespect to this talented actor, this was not his best role. The costumes and sets are visually exquisite, too. But these cannot illuminate the mystery of the plot.

The film begins with Control (Hurt), the head of the British Intelligence Service, sending Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes) to Budapest to negotiate a defection. But things go terribly wrong, Prideaux is shot, and Control is forced to resign. Along with him goes Smiley, his right hand man. That leaves a cadre of four men in suits to run the Circus (the nickname for the agency): Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, Flickerman's cohost in The Hunger Games), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Bill Hayden (Colin Firth, The King's Speech), and Roy Bland (Ciarin Hinds, The Debt). And Alleline’s newest operation, code-named Witchcraft, is bringing untold gems of intelligence from the Soviets but he has not shared the source.

After a year in retirement, Smiley is approached by a senior government official and told that there is a mole at the top of the Circus and is asked to investigate. Working with assistant Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), they find that Control had suspected the top four, code-naming them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

There are two major themes in the film. The first is introduced when one of the four says to Smiley: “Things are not always what they seem.” This could be said of life itself. We see the physical world all around us but are blind to the invisible world of spirits, angels and demons. Yet, there is a war going on, a cold war between these spirits of light and darkness (Dan. 10:12-13). Moreover, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). He comes to us as an agent of goodness, of light, when in fact he wants our destruction (Jn. 10:10). Like Smiley, we find ourselves engaged in this cold war, and we need to avail ourselves of the spiritual armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20). Using these defensive and offensive weapons we can stand firm when the devil attacks.

The second theme emerges from another interaction between Smiley and one of the four. “You survived this long, I suppose, because of your ability to change sides, to serve any master,” says Smiley. The potential spy retorts, “What’s this about, George?” And Smiley answers, “It’s about which master you’ve been serving.”

The survivor has acted like a chameleon, changing masters as needed, never showing true loyalty. The spy, on the other hand, has shown loyalty, but switched this loyalty. He has sold out one master to serve another, for political or pragmatic reasons. Jesus talks about serving two masters: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Lk. 16:13). We must choose whom we will serve. If we sell out for money, we are serving Mammon and we have chosen against God. We are all serving something or someone, but we can make it a conscious choice rather than subconscious choice. In doing so, we can make it apparent who or what sits on the throne of our heart. We must not be like the survivor or the spy, but like the saint, who is devoted to the one true God. Smiley knew which master he was serving, do you?

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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