In popular culture there is but one British secret agent, and he is called Bond. Mr. 007 has made us believe that spies wear tailored tuxedos, drink vodka martinis and drive Aston Martins. That they live in a world of glamour and wealth … and fame. When a tourist points to James Bond in The Man With the Golden Gun and exclaims, “You’re that secret agent! That English secret agent! From England!” our suave hero doesn’t even blink. He is famous, this secret agent, as inconspicuous as Fourth of July fireworks.
The Secret Intelligence Service in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would have little use for Bond. There is no Q there in the Circus (the nickname for the agency), no standard-issue ejection seats or exploding pens. Here, work is done without fanfare or glamour. It is done in nondescript offices by nondescript people. They are a quiet, secretive lot, these spies—as out of place in a casino as Bond would be in a cubicle. If you met one, you might assume he was a clerk. An accountant. A middle manager.
And you’d probably not notice the gun in his pocket. Not unless he wanted you to.
It’s 1973—the same year The Man With the Golden Gun came out—and there’s a problem in the Circus: a mole. “Control,” longtime head of the Circus, had suspected it for some time, and he’s narrowed down the potential traitors to a cast of five. But there are complications. Control’s dead now, and much of his regime has been discredited after a mission in Budapest goes disastrously awry. In desperation, the government rehires George Smiley, Control’s one-time right-hand man, to root out the mysterious mole—perhaps unaware that Smiley was one of Control’s five suspects.
Smiley takes the job and returns to a world he’s known so well—a world writ in shades of grey. In a world of tricksters, he’s always excelled. But spying on spies? This may be his trickiest job yet.
In analyzing the murky workaday world of the Circus, it’s difficult to assign unmitigated praise to anyone. The people we meet are required to lie and cheat and sometimes kill. But they do so for their government. And they do so with a great deal of competence.
Smiley is a consummate spy. He’s mastered the art of letting others talk while he listens, and he doggedly pursues his quarry through every means available. He does it not out of revenge or ambition—or even a patriotic sense of “queen and country.” He’s been asked to do a job, and so he will. And that clarity of purpose perhaps makes him a bit of a hero.
Many of his colleagues are, in their own ways, also trying to do the right thing. Though they often seem to be breaking the rules (even their own), their purpose is clear: Protect the people. Thus, the film shows flashes of understated courage and conviction; but never are these laudable traits allowed to go without a grimier alloy.
An operation is dubbed “Witchcraft.” Someone says an interrogator looked like a priest.
Topless dancers perform in a nightclub. A spy looks in a bedroom occupied by a man and woman who are obviously having sex. (We see the woman from the back as she moves on top of the man.) An agent named Ricki Tarr has a fling—and later falls in love—with the wife of a Soviet agent. The two have a passionate affair, and we see them kiss as they begin to disrobe.
Smiley is estranged from his wife, and it’s suggested this estrangement was precipitated, at least in part, by the fact that she was having an affair with another agent. Smiley walks in to find the agent in his house one day, obviously nervous and not wearing any shoes. It’s also suggested Smiley sees the two “together” at a Christmas party. (We see Smiley’s shocked face, not the couple.)
A homosexual agent splits with his lover for fear that their relationship will be discovered. A former agent laments her lack of a sex life, using some pretty shocking language to do so. Spies flirt with and leer at the women who work with them.
The violence in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is arguably less pervasive than what’s presented in most James Bond films. But it’s more realistic and thus feels more brutal. In the Budapest caper gone wrong, a man opens fire on a fleeing agent, sending him sprawling with a bullet in the back. Blood pools around him. A woman holding a baby is shot in the temple, the bullet wound clearly visible and trickling blood.
Another woman is shot to death, leaving a spray of blood on the wall behind her. The body of a man is found in a blood-filled bathtub. The body of another is discovered with his throat gruesomely cut. A spy is gunned down via sniper bullet. (We see both the small entry wound and the far gorier exit wound at the back of his scalp.)
A man endures torture. We hear of fingernails being removed during torture. Someone spits up blood. One man beats down another, leaving the victim to wipe blood from his face. A woman is also beaten (visible through a curtain). We later see her bloodied and bruised face. Control is shown in a hospital bed, apparently dead.
When a bird flies into a classroom through a chimney, its wings on fire, the teacher beats it to death.
About 10 uses of the f-word. Three or four of the s-word. We hear “d‑‑n,” “h‑‑‑,” “b‑‑tard” “p‑‑‑” and the British profanity “bloody.” God’s and Jesus’ names are each misused at least twice.
Many of these 1970s characters smoke cigarettes or pipes, and nearly all of them drink. Control whines at an office Christmas party that the punch isn’t nearly alcoholic enough. “It’ll take us five hours to get drunk on this,” he says, adding some of his own liquor to the mix. A former agent tries to turn down a drink from an old friend, saying her doctor told her to avoid the stuff. But eventually she imbibes. Scenes take place in nightclubs and bars.
“I’m innocent,” an AWOL agent tells Smiley. “Within reason.” It’s a telling line. One that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might well claim for itself.
But is it innocent within reason? Does a movie’s context mitigate its content? Can virtues outweigh vices? One could argue that the violence here is harsh, but not gratuitous. One could insist that the drinking and smoking befit the times. Moreover, that this is a beautifully acted bit of cinema that gives us an educational glimpse of a world often unseen.
It’s a complex task to weigh and measure art like this. And in doing so it’s easy to find ourselves sinking into the same sort of murky world these spies inhabit—one in which black and white have been replaced by shades of pewter and gunmetal gray. One in which the means may seem justified in light of the end.
Is it innocent within reason?
But even as I ask, I think you know the answer. We know, somehow, that when we ask such questions, the very act of voicing them is an effort of rationalization. We rationalize our little white lies. We excuse our insensitivity. We say “pardon my French” when we swear. We know that, relatively speaking, we’re pretty good people.
But to be good is not relative. Innocence is not a matter of reason. These are empirical definitions—words anchored to a lofty and perhaps unreachable ideal. Good is different than good enough. Innocent means something far better than innocent enough. When we pull these elevated words down to our level—the murky plateau in which most of us live—we do them a disservice. And we do ourselves a disservice too … because when we pull things down to ourselves, that invariably means we’ve stopped trying to pull ourselves up.
I can’t say, then, whether Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is innocent within reason. I can only say that it falls well short of innocent.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.