When Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy started, I assumed the film was going to be a bit of nostalgia about the Cold War. About a time when men where men; about the way things used to be; about how the Cold War was such a clearer time when we could name our enemy, unlike this War on Terror; and something in the vein of remember the glory days for straight, white old men. There were plenty of old white men in this film about the highest ranks of the British Secret Intelligence Services, about the bosses of spies. As their deeply wrinkled faces filled the screen, I couldn’t help but to wonder if we’d ever see older women with deep-set wrinkles obsessed with their jobs lining the screen. (Yes, I know about Iron Lady, but I want an entire cast filled with women with wrinkles and whatever is our equivalent of balding.)
Much to my pleasant surprise, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does not glorify the Cold War. Perhaps due this being a British film, it instead is as much a critique on the ridiculousness of the Cold War spy as it is a critique on masculinity, specifically the notion of what it is to be a spy. With the exceptions of Peter and Ricky, these men are old. They were once war heroes. For the most part, they send out others to do the dirty work and play chess with Moscow, with Karla, their Soviet equivalent.
The plot centers around there being a mole at the top of the organization. One of these men is delivering information to Karla. Their operations are busted, and their peers and field agents shot at. There are really no women in this story — and if there are, they only serve as motivation for the men or saints to tell us just how bad things have gotten. Spoilers ahead.
George Smiley: the emasculated aging man who’s right
Smiley is both the hero and the one making a case that the old men may still have things right. He discovers, quite due to his own paranoia, that there’s a mole. Especially after he’s been dismissed from the organization where he was once part of the inner circle. As was his boss — Control, who we see a photo of as a shining WWII soldier — and Smiley is one of the men who was one Control’s list as the possible mole.
At points, Smiley seems like he could be the unreliable narrator. He tells Peter Guillam about a time he met Karla; how he told secrets to Karla, who said nothing; and how Karla walked off with a lighter Smiley’s wife Anna had engraved and given to him. But no, Smiley is here to tell us that the elderly man is not befuddled. That his enemies have only put obstacles in front of him because they know his heart — his love of Anna — and have been using this against him. We see him completely emasculated at a Christmas party — his last before being dismissed (another emasculation) — as he see Bill Haydon making out in the bushes with Anna and later, when Bill tries to put on his shoes under Smiley’s dining room table after having sex with Anna.
And George is rewarded for being right at the end by both reuniting with Anna and by taking Control’s position.
Peter Guillam: the effective spy boss who’s gay and a bit of a coward
Peter is perhaps the only effective spy boss (and I’m not saying this just because I love Benedict Cumberbatch in a three-piece suit); but he has two hidden secrets: he’s gay and a coward. He’s significantly younger than our group of aging men, but identifies highly with them. Peter’s age is especially notable as he’s reprimanded by Percy Alleline, and when he fights with Ricky, who’s an active field spy and his own age.
However, as Peter assists Smiley, we see that he is not a coward. He may tremble with fear, but he is indeed the character we (at least those of us not in the older male category) are meant to identify. Peter is the Other in the narrative. He is the one we sympathize with the most (or at least I did) and the one we see crying over the terrible cost of his mission the find the mole. His terrible cost being having to break up with his lover and break his own heart.
Peter pushes against the idea of the James Bond spy. To be effective, he does not need to date Belinda the blonde (as he and Bill joke at the beginning — ewww casual sexist nostalgia) or get into shooting matches; he just needs to believe in queen and country. Stealing files and papers wins the day over explosions.
If I had one issue with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it would be that we do not see Peter’s ending. We do not see if he’s reunited with his lover. We do not see him sitting at Smiley’s table, though I can say that it’s safe to assume he is.
Bill Haydon: the playboy war hero — the James Bond — who’s a traitor
If anyone is James Bond now heading up his division, it’s Bill. When we found him to the traitor, I leaned over to my friend Julia and whispered, “Mr. Darcy’s such an asshole.” No one plays a charmer in the same way that Colin Firth does, and he was perfectly cast in this role as he is getting older, but he’s not “out-to-pasture” sexually in the same way the other men are.
Bill breaks down the notion of the playboy as we find he doesn’t do everything because it’s fun and games. Because we find out that he is not in it for queen and country, but deluded by men playing games and defects to the Soviets. Perhaps Bill likes that the Soviets have no version of James Bond.
Bill longs for the clarity of war, and clearly, Bill had either a romance or a strong romantic friendship bond with Jim Prideaux. His lovers — which we find out are female and male and some like Anna romanced for his cover (nothing like Bond) — hold no candle to that relationship. It is not them who shoot Bill and then cry. It is not them that Bill thinks of, especially as Smiley asks him about Anna.
Jim Prideaux: the tortured loner who once loved
James Bond ends his day with the world saved, a beautiful woman on his arm, and martini in his hand. Jim’s day started with the saintly mother taking a bullet for him and ends with him delivering a bullet to Bill’s head, the only person he has loved. In between, Jim’s viciously tortured for the knowledge of how much Control knows about the mole, realizes Bill is the mole (arguably also the one to warn him which leads to Jim being shot, captured, and tortured), and in the meantime, teaches at a boy’s school.
Jim’s a spy put out to pasture. But one to cover up sins, one who is a recluse and a loner due to his passions. The audience laughed uncomfortably as he killed the pigeon in his classroom; but it can only be a metaphor for his heart. For the tear streaming down his face as he shoots Bill. For his bond with the young boy that he sees so much of himself in, who he tries to mold into a spy, only to have the masculinity of a stereotypical spy melt before him.
Percy Alleline: The sniveling wimp
Clearly, Alleline was never a field agent. No one can see him handling a gun. He only moves people as his pawns. He’s the squeaky wheel, the one who’s influence is underestimated by the others as he rises to power. As he shoves project Witchcraft down the throats of SIS. His ending only fits that had Bill not been a mole, Witchcraft — at least in feeding bad intel to the Soviets — would’ve been successful. He’s a new kind of successful spy, the one who is not a hero, but gains power by what he knows about others.
Toby Esterhase: The survival sheep
Toby’s is also an Other. I’d assume from Smiley’s story about how Control found him as a boy starving in a museum in Austria that he is Jewish. But unlike Peter, our other Other, Toby’s weakness is pointed to be his ability to survive. His ability to notice how others rise to power and stand behind them, while seemingly not having an ethical code of his own.
When Smiley confronts him about the mole, to see if it’s Alleline — who Toby’s been following around — Toby breaks down at the threat of being sent away. He wants to please, and he wants to live. James Bond would never cry and survive by being a sheep. He wouldn’t be scared to go back to Austria, where he may be killed.
Ricky: Good evening, Mr. Bond
If anyone is field agent Bond in this story, it’s Ricky. He’s the spy, pulling on his own when he needs to, delivering the information back to the good guys, finding major information out, and romancing the girl. On paper.
In reality, Ricky is betrayed by the mole and is pinned with the crime. There’s no way he could’ve cleared his name without with the help of Smiley and Peter. No, eventually, SIS under the mole’s orders would’ve killed him and labeled him the traitor. (Or at least an agent coerced by Smiley, if Smiley was pinned as the mole.) Ricky is outraged and paranoid beyond paranoid when he arrives back in the UK to phone Peter and then at Smiley’s house. Ricky has watched the old guard — literally — get their throats cut out and is waiting for the person to do it to him.
Romances are a staple of the Bond-genre. But they aren’t romance, so much as Bond getting laid with the hot woman. Never the same one film to film or book to book. He doesn’t settle down. Bond doesn’t fall in love. But Ricky does. Ricky falls in love with Irene. Irene who sees right through him — though very Bond-like in that Bond always seemed to like the ones that saw him for his spy-self — and whom becomes his goal. Ricky comes home to SIS with information not for queen and country, but to save the girl. Bond always saves the world first. And he looks good while doing it; whereas Ricky, you can almost smell his grime in a few scenes.
Roy Bland: Our soldier
If anyone’s the befuddled soldier, it’s Roy Bland. He barely makes a dent. The war hero is only a suspect because he has access. He is the ineffectual that Smiley believes himself to be at the start of the film.
We are not so very different, you and I. We’ve both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another. — George Smiley
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an interesting film because none of its heroes or villains are what an SIS spy is supposed to be. All of them subvert the masculine ideal of James Bond. They make the Cold War seem like a tedious guessing game. Not a single one is 100% “right” for their genre. But they make it more interesting, more identifiable, and infinitely more complex. I usually have such a hard time watching movies filled with old men, but one kept me thinking, kept subverting those old men and masculinity and the spy.