Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spy vs. Spy: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“He's a fanatic, so we can stop him, because a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”
George Smiley – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“Failure for a terrorist is just a dress rehearsal for success.”
Ethan Hunt – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

George Smiley and Ethan Hunt are in the same profession. They are spies working clandestinely to keep certain evils, be they communism or individual madmen, from destroying the very fabric of Western civilization. The two movies these characters appear in, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (based on a novel by John Le Carré) and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (the fourth film based on the 1960s TV series), both opened last Friday. What's fascinating about each is that they represent two completely different schools of thought in the depiction of the world of the spy. One, Tinker Tailor, is a cerebral drama about the attempt to uncover a mole (double agent) at the very top of British Secret Service in 1973; the other, M:I – GP, is an action-packed film set in the present day about the attempt to stop a madman from unleashing a nuclear missile on the US. What is equally fascinating is they start in exactly the same way and even in the same city, and yet after those first few opening moments they peel off in two completely different thematic directions.

In M:I – GP, an agent, Trevor Hanaway (played by Lost's Josh Holloway), is in Budapest, Hungary. He and other members of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) are there to intercept a courier who has acquired the launch codes for a nuclear weapon. He is betrayed and shot by a beautiful assassin. In Tinker Tailor, an agent, Jim Prideaux (played by Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong), is in Budapest, Hungary. He is there because the head of the Circus (British Secret Service), known only as Control (John Hurt), has sent him to meet up with a source who claims to know the name of the mole. It is a trap, and Prideaux is shot by a sweaty waiter. Both films and where they are heading are determined in their establishing shots of Budapest.

M:I – GP was filmed partially in Imax (if you can, see it this way – it is visually spectacular), and the first image we have of Budapest is a sun-filled vista of the beautiful old city as a helicopter shot zooms us into the start of the action. The audacity of this beautiful, embracing shot tells us very quickly what we are in store for. Before we can completely orient ourselves, we hit the ground running as we follow Hanaway as he evades a group of thugs, falls from a building, and springs to his feet just in time to be easily plugged by the beautiful assassin (Léa Seydoux, one of the daughters at the start of Inglourious Basterds).

Gary Oldman as George Smiley
Tinker Tailor features the exact same vista of old Budapest, but instead of being sunny, the sky is drab and grey (as the film itself will be throughout). The cityscape is shot from a fair distance back and so it flattens the image and removes the beauty. We are introduced to Prideaux as he waits with another man for the source to arrive. The air is filled with tension that extends to the sweating waiter to the fidgety man who waits with Prideaux to the suspicious Prideaux himself. He decides to leave, and as he does so, the waiter (who's actually a Russian agent) panics, pulls a gun and shoots wildly. His first shot misses, killing a mother as she nurses her child (the drab horror of what this world represents is quickly established by a very brief and deeply disturbing shot of the baby continuing to feed at her breast as she slumps, dead, in her seat). He shoots again and finally hits his target.

It might be argued that Tinker Tailor is the superior film because it brings us into a very realistic world of bureaucratic idiocy and plodding quiet observation that is the lot of the real world of spies; while M:I – GP is essentially the James Bondian cartoon version filled with incredible gadgets, amazing stunts, fast cars and faster women. This would be a complete disservice to the fantastically entertaining nature of M:I – GP. In fact, I think that M:I – GP is the marginally better film. Don't get me wrong, Tinker Tailor is thoughtful, mournful, beautifully acted and even occasionally moving, but because they have had to condense Le Carre's very dense narrative down to two hours and ten minutes, I submit that unless you are familiar with the book, or the 1979 mini-series (more on that in a second), you are likely to be scrambling to knit it all together. Considering the complexity of the book, adapters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan and director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) have done a marvellous job making the material generally work. It's because there's so much going on in the story that it is easy to get lost. The 1979 mini-series (which starred Alec Guinness as Smiley) had six hours to examine this world and to make it clear. I've not seen it since then, but I've never forgotten the story-telling impact it had on me.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley
What works best in this film is the longing and the loneliness of the characters. Two examples: One spy has to go into hiding as a teacher at a private boys' school. At the school, he befriends a young boy who's a loner (the perfect type for a spy). Seeing himself in the lad, and wanting to save him from the life he's lived, he pushes the kid away, saying “Just bloody join in [the play with other boys], will you.” The other is when Smiley (a superb Gary Oldman – who finds his own unique path with a character strongly tied to Guinness) visits his old colleague, Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke). She's also a teacher, but at an arts college. As the two old friends talk in a common room, two young students in the background get frisky with each other. They scamper away for some privacy, and as they do, Connie says, “Don't know about you George, but I feel seriously underfucked.” It's both a very funny line and sad as the two upper middle-aged people talk and think back on their long-gone youth.

The film is filled with great actors doing fine work, including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy (as the sarcastic spy, Ricky Tarr), Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbach (National Theatre's Frankenstein and BBC's Sherlock), and Stephen Graham (Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire). The only wasted performer is the great Ciarán Hinds (The Eclipse, Rome). He has, I think, one line of dialogue in the entire picture.

Tom Cruise scaling Burj Khalifa
But let's be honest, M:I – GP is not about its characters or the story (madman, nuclear weapon – that's basically it). It's about the action. But unlike too many dunderheaded action films, this one's set pieces are carefully thought out and actually make sense to the narrative and to our awareness of the slightly crazy nature of Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt. One of the reasons it works is because it's very funny. This is especially important after the god-awful, self-serious, deeply terrible 2006 Mission: Impossible 3. It's particularly funny because of the performance of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Star Trek), but also in the little bits of business peppered throughout the film: the self-destructing phone that won't self-destruct until Hunt hits it because it's a Soviet-era piece o' crap; Hunt and IMF analyst Brandt (a very good Jeremy Renner) running beside a moving train trying to gain access to the retinal scan on the side of the train so they can get into the super-secret spy-mobile interior. There are many others, but I leave those for you to discover. 


One thing I do want to talk about is director Brad Bird. Bird is one of the resident genius directors at Pixar. His The Incredibles and Ratatouille are not only great cartoons, but great films, period. This is his first live action film, and if anybody thought he might not be up to the task, just look what he does here. Besides keeping the action hopping and the humour coming, his visual sense is top-notch. Whether it's the brilliant sequence where Tom Cruise climbs up and then swings down from the outside of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai's tallest building in the world (I don't suffer from vertigo, but man alive these sequences are breath-taking); in-tight action sequences where you can always tell what's happening to whom when; a Rube Goldberg-like action sequence in a Mumbai parking garage; or something as simple as framing his shots so you see the big thing in the foreground, but then your eye naturally drifts to another part of the screen where he wants you to see a bit of business in the background. To borrow from the Sixties song, "Surfin' Bird", Bird is the word.

Bird has also managed to pull something resembling a performance out of Cruise. The secret may be to surround him with good actors (besides Pegg and Renner, there's Paula Patton (Idlewild) and Tom Wilkinson) and don't let him go-it alone. The problem with the second M:I film, which I actually liked, and especially the third, which I loathed, is that all the other actors essentially became cheering sections for Cruise's one-man-band. I've never been a Cruise hater. (I know he's not a good actor, but for some reason I've always had a soft spot for him – maybe it's because he always does everything with such full-bore enthusiasm.) However, I did like a line a friend of mine shared with me about this movie: “this is a film that makes you forget you hate Tom Cruise.”

Interestingly, by the end, after diverging dramatically from each other after the near-identical beginnings, both Tinker Tailor and M:I – GP find themselves back together as each lead character tries to find ways to bring the women in their lives back into theirs. In Tinker Tailer it's a nice elegiac finale; in M:I – GP it's the only serious misstep. Both pictures generally achieve their aims and ably show that there is room on the movie screen for both schools of thought. It's a pity that, no matter how terrific M:I – GP is, and it is pretty terrific, that this style of spy film is relatively common. Thoughtful pieces such as Tinker Tailor are the anomaly and a struggle to get made. There will probably be more Mission: Impossible movies; here's hoping that there is also the will to make more spy movies such as the thoughtful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel. And yes, in the photo at left, David is standing mere blocks from MI6.

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