In the early 1980s, I read a couple of John LeCarre novels and there was a great TV series that played on PBS featuring Alec Guinness as the spymaster Smiley. It was my friend Art Franz however who was the real fan. He ate up all those books and read everything he could find about the British Spy scandals of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I know that we saw this movie opening weekend and I’m pretty sure it was a foursome which included our wives. Unfortunately, I can’t remember Art’s exact reaction to the film. I think we were both impressed with it, but he may have had some reservations. Since he passed in 1993, I don’t always have a buddy to see a spy movie with that can talk about it fluently. I know, that except for the James Bond films, I don’t ever go back and revisit those films unless they are action based. Maybe that makes me a little shallow, but it did mean that today, when watching this film for the project, it was almost like seeing it for the first time. I did not hold many memories of the film, and the plot threw me for the first hour because it was not exactly clear what was happening.
I was blindsided by the fact that the movie was directed by George Roy Hill, a director who had filmed several of my favorite films but was not known for a distinctive style. The procedural nature of this story does not lend itself well to fancy visual story telling techniques. The plot is drama heavy not action oriented, so in a way he is a good choice for the film, but the lack of distinctive technique probably makes the movie feel a little bit lethargic.
If you are not willing to be patient, and your tolerance for complexity is low, this movie will frustrate the hell out of you. After a dramatic opening with a horrific act of terror, there is basically an hour of exposition. That hour is leisurely at setting up the plot and long on detailing how the story that will be used for cover is going to be developed. In a James Bond film, 007 usually infiltrates the organization quickly, and then there is a certain amount of action to keep you engrossed. The star of this movie is Diane Keaton and half an hour is spent in trying to recruit her as a mole for the Mosad.
She is an American actress, working in Britain, and participating in protests advocating the Palestinian cause. She never seems like a real person in these early sections. She is supposed to be naive and dewy eyed enough to fall for a terrorist who delivers a political lecture in a hood so that he cannot be identified. The usual rationalizations are presented to justify acts of murder deliberately and cruelly directed at civilians, including children, and she seems headstrong enough to believe it although she is willing to work in a TV commercial selling cheap wine.
The whole purpose of the next hour is to show us the spy craft that goes into an elaborate plan to take down a particular terrorist. We see how the backstory is built up, how the spies create an identity for their agent to be inserted into the plot, and the interrogation techniques used to gain some degree of information from one of the terrorists is also laid out with good detail. The most interesting part however is that the actress being recruited is also undergoing much of the same treatment. She is entrapped by romantic and political visions but ultimately hooked because it is a job of acting that she is being tasked with.
Klaus Kinski plays the Israeli spy master who knows which questions to ask and what buttons to push. At times he seems to be a sympathetic mentor but in other moments he comes across as a calculating manipulator. Ultimately he is the one who makes the harsh decisions that effect most of the players in this game. He decides who will die and what someones contributions might be worth. The best scenes in the film are his audition scenes with Keaton. He presses her on the stories she tells. He points out the lies and the reasons that those lies won’t fly and then he gives advice about how to lie more effectively. I think his character is a complex one, and is ultimately supposed to be a sympathetic portrait but sometimes it will be hard to forget the cruel manner in which he performs his tasks.
One of the weaknesses of the film is the character of Joseph. He is the spy that replaces the true terrorist in the plan so as to woo the actress into the plot. As a character he is underwritten and the actor has very little charisma to pull off the notion that a woman could fall for him so quickly and completely.
It takes a while for the plan to reveal itself, basically, Keaton’s character “Charlie” is going to be placed in a position to be recruited by the terror cell, based on the belief that she is the lover of the brother of the bomb making master mind. She has to be taken in by the Israeli spy, and then play out the role as if he really were the brother. We get some hints along the way as to how letters are manufactured and trust is built up among the terror group. In the end, she is brought to a Palestinian Training camp in Lebanon and has to fool the first level of investigation there. The one eyed commander of the training camp is not easily taken in but she has a very good cover story thanks to all the machinations of the Mosad group. Keaton’s delicate mannerisms and previous roles do undermine her a bit on the credibility factors in this section. She enters into training and becomes a top student in weapons and bomb making techniques.
The confidence with which she performs some of the exercises at the camp is a little much to swallow, but the thing that best sells her as a true believer also provides one of her best scenes in the movie. She has to keep her cover as the only back up she has in the area is discovered and then she has to deny him and watch as he is executed. In the big scheme of things, there was little choice in her actions, but as a potentially shaky recruit, it is the moment we know she is ready to carry out the most dangerous and unpleasant parts of the mission.
The techniques used to fool the Terror leader in regard to an assassination that “Charlie” carries out, could not work in today’s social media world, but in 1984, it is easy to believe that news events could be manipulated enough for a short amount of time, just enough to get her close to her target.
The discord that exists in the Mosad group over their mission is an interesting side issue that does not get as much development as it probably did in the novel. “Joseph” is conflicted because he begins to fall in love for real with “Charlie”. Martin Kurtz, the Kinski character, is pragmatic and cool about all the possibilities. “Litvak” another of the group, a tough minded agent who tracked down the brother in the first place, is dismissive of “Charlie” and indifferent to what happens because he says she is a liar, a communist and a whore. All of those characteristics though are the things that will allow the plot to develop.
Diane Keaton may have been miscast in the part, but that does not mean she does a bad job of acting. She has several excellent scenes where her petulance will provoke some drama. In the climax of the action, when she is covered in blood, she actually seems the most real. Hysteria can be played over the top and it can be bad. She seemed very relativistic and is much closer to a PTSD victim than a screaming diva trying to make acting points.
Just as an added incentive to see the film, it has a very young Bill Nighy cast in a minor part as a fellow actor in Keaton’s troop of performers. You get the feeling there might have been a romantic plot thread there but it is never developed.
If you saw any version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” , then you know how complicated al this material can get. There are some confusing moments in the first hour but by the time you get to the tension building climax it all seems to make sense. The film was not a big success and does not have a great reputation in film circles. Fans of the genre will appreciate the detail that the film goes into to make the plot work. Keaton and Kinski do enough to justify seeing the movie, but it is not action packed and once you have seen it, I suspect it will be forgotten.