Return of the Cold War: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by Eric Margolis: What
Is Really Going On in Syria
films is not something I often do, but as an old Cold Warrior who
has covered intelligence matters for decades, the subject matter
of the thrilling book Tinker,
Tailor, Soldier, Spy is right up my dark alley.
John Le Carré’s
Cold War espionage trilogy, which also includes, The
People, is the finest work on the world of intelligence
ever written. Le Carré served in Britain’s Secret Intelligence
Service, MI6, and knows of what he writes. He masterfully captures
all the bureaucratic tedium and moments of terror of spy work, its
lies, double-dealing, and betrayals.
The 1976 BBC
TV version of Tinker, Tailor and the sequel, Smiley’s
People, was the best thing I have ever seen on TV. It was
perfect. Full stop.
John Le Carré
stated the BBC version was "complete" and should not be
remade. I felt the same way, fearing that a remake would inevitably
A remake should
at least bring new depth or contemporary sensibility. Alas, the
Anglo-French film version by director Tomas Alfredson detracts
rather than adds to this epic tale.
Don’t get me
wrong. The film is well made and interesting. But it has tried to
compress Le Carré’s large cast of fascinating characters
and murky, jig-saw puzzle of patient detection into an all-too-brief
the film produces only one finely-etched character, Smiley, very
well played by a somber Gary Oldman. But trying to follow the genius
of Alec Guinness, who played Smiley for the BBC, is an impossible
act to follow.
other wonderful characters in the BBC series that Le Carré
brought to vivid life become mere cardboard cutouts in the film.
The slippery Hungarian chief of the Lamplighters, Toby Esterhase;
Bill Hayden, the charming seducer of one and all; insufferably pompous
Sir Percy Alliline; gruff, chain-smoking Roy Bland; and Jim Prideaux,
betrayed on a mission behind the Iron Curtain by the man he loved.
up in New York’s theater world, I’ve seen many moments of memorable
drama, but none more so than the wonderful scene in the Smiley’s
People where Toby Esterhase kidnaps a Soviet diplomat played
with consummate skill by the Anglo-French actor Michael Lonsdale.
Watching Smiley slowly, relentlessly deconstruct the blustering
Soviet official into a blubbering mess is one of cinema’s supreme
not in the film. Nor is the shadowy Karla, grand spymaster of Moscow
Center. Maybe a sequel to the new film?
the new film won’t understand the great underlying drama of the
Philby treason. The fictitious Philby-like character, Bill Hayden,
weakly played by Colin Firth, only hints at the monster treachery
that lies beneath.
The real Philby,
a gifted son of Britain’s elite who grew to hate the West, became
a senior figure at British intelligence and its liaison with CIA
in Washington. Philby betrayed scores of Western operations and
hundreds of agents behind the Iron Curtain, all of whom were executed,
including a relative of mine.
Philby convinced CIA’s powerful chief of counter-espionage, James
Jesus Angleton, that the Agency was riddled with KGB moles. As a
result, both MI6 and CIA were, to use Le Carré’s term, "turned
inside out" and crippled by frantic witch hunts and galloping
his fellow spies in Britain’s establishment, known as the "Cambridge
Five," are generally considered the most destructive Soviet
agents of the era.
But when I
was invited into the KGB’s top secret museum in Moscow, the curator
assured me that George Blake, who was not part of Philby’s coterie,
had been, in fact, the most effective Soviet spy in Britain. Reading
Blake’s notebooks made me feel ice cold.
Smiley’s People, Smiley and his old team hunt and then trap
Karla through his one human weakness, his daughter. In reality,
I saw something eerily similar happen to one of the very top Soviet
leaders in the 1970’s.
As an old Cold
Warrior, I do miss the thrill and drama of the conflict each and
every day. The Soviets were redoubtable, worthy foes. As Japanese
samurai used to say, honor in battle is commensurate to the might
of your enemy.
Thank Le Carré
for keeping these exciting memories alive.
him mail] is the author of War
at the Top of the World and the new book, American
Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the
West and the Muslim World. See his
© 2012 Eric Margolis
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