We never get a head-on look at the main Russian antagonists in Tomas Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the latest adaptation of John le Carré's classic Cold War spy thriller of the same name. Instead, the Soviet agents insistently lurk just at the edges of the frame, visible -- if ever -- only as hollow silhouettes or passing shadows. Just as it is for the British intelligence agents who form the film's main corps of protagonists, we know these faraway schemers only by the ambiguous ripples they cast on the west side of the Iron Curtain. Nor can we or the main characters claim the easy privilege of vilifying these antagonists, for the film is imbued with the frightening suspicion that there is a moral equivalency -- or at least a behavioral symmetry -- uniting both sides of the Cold War. Each side uses the same cold-blooded methods (torture, extrajudicial surveillance, murder, sexual manipulation) and in any case, the spy class as depicted here are not capitalists or proletarians but rather civil servants whose motivations are personal and professional, not ideological. So if there are no Bondian action showdowns with Soviet megalomaniacs, no affirmations of the inherent goodness of free-market capitalism or the inherent corruption of communism, what then is at stake in this film -- morally, narratively, psychologically? What compels us -- and the characters -- to keep moving forward towards the resolution of the film's central mystery? And what do we hope to achieve when we get there?
Perhaps it's best to begin by tracing the contours of that central mystery, the ostensible destination of the film's journey through the psychological back-alleys of British intelligence, code-named "The Circus." Basically -- and I'm leaving out a lot of rich backstory here -- the film's plot is a classic whodunit: one of four top Circus officials is suspected of being a long-time Soviet mole, and it's up to semi-retired spymaster and recurrent le Carré character George Smiley to ferret him out. Smiley is an uncharismatic, perspicacious, largely silent man whose distinguishing features are his drabness and his misguided love for his cheating wife; in essence, he is the anti-Bond, and he is played with laconic self-effacement by Gary Oldman, replacing Alec Guiness, who played Smiley in a 1979 miniseries adaptation of the novel. Smiley's talent -- what elevates him from a meek nobody to a national-security genius -- is his ability to grasp the psychological realities hidden behind the espionage world's curtain of abstraction. Because that's what this film is about fundamentally: abstractions, and the ability to stictch them together into something meaningful. Smiley has no visible enemies, no tangible objects to find or identify, no murder mystery to solve. All he has, like the audience, is a series of facts put out before him, and his enterprise -- like that of the viewer -- is to rearrange the puzzle pieces into an image that makes sense.
On that level, what's at stake for Smiley is what's at stake for the audience: the chance to build a system of information that hopefully is the correct one out of many wrong ones. We witness a world bathed in hypnotic dread -- beneath the browns and grays of ‘70s London, beneath the drab machinations of drab men in a drab bureaucracy, we know that most un-drab things are afoot: national security, the fate of the free world, etc. But he film hardly ever speaks the name of these graver issues; instead, it is left to us to pick up the intimations behind the surface movements. If the film works at all -- and it does, excellently! -- it is because we are engaged in the same process as Smiley: making sense of a confused information-pattern, seeing events as proxies or stand-ins for other events. So this is a taciturn, chilly film, but it is also absorbingly rich, because for every gesture shown on the screen, there are a thousand unseen ones whose invisibility only serves to increase their portentousness. The fragmented structure of the movie -- with events depicted non-linearly or in flashbacks -- is the perfect mirror for the fragmented information-structure presented to Smiley. More than spies, we all become mathematicians.
Admittedly, Smiley is engaged in more than a dispassionate hunt for cold facts; even if he isn't deeply invested in the moral outcome of the Cold War, he cares about the sanctity of the organization he's worked for all his life. Ousted from the service in the wake of a botched mission in Budapest (a disaster caused by the mole and shown inexorably unfolding in the film's prologue) he is bereft of his vocation, bereft of the one thing he's good at. Finding the mole is his way back to power; it's a way of restoring the honor of his generation by applying his mind to the facts before him. That's all that he can achieve by finding the Soviet infiltrator, and that's all that we can hope for as viewers: a de-scrambled puzzle that we can all live with, that makes us all feel like we're where we belong...