The 13th Best Movie I Saw (in 2011): Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I got in a debate with a junior high student earlier this year over whether or not Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen was an “awesome” movie or not. The battle raged loudly for a minute or two before it occurred to me that there was little, maybe nothing I could say that would mean anything to this poor kid. He liked the second Transformers movie for all the reasons you like a Transformers movie, I’d hated it for all the reasons you don’t. And, in my defense, there’s a twenty-minute section where an old plane explains the mythology of the Primes, which remains a stupid thing no matter who you are. 

The argument echoed the conversation I occasionally have with people who are bewildered by the attention I pay to movies. “Can you ever just, like, watch a movie? For fun?” They ask. I give my standard answer, the answer every film student and movie critic has ever given: delving into movies doesn’t decrease my enjoyment of movies, it increases it. Does it make me a touch superior and condescending? More than a touch? No doubt. But I love diving into a good movie, or a bad movie, and if I spend thirty minutes afterwards on the drive home complaining about camera angles and plot holes, well, that’s part of the fun for me. If you don’t like it, go see Marmaduke with someone else.

And then, we come to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a movie it may be possible to like only if you are like me. It is unrepentantly old school, a film for people who love and miss the slow, taut pace of 70’s thrillers. People gaze off into the distance for long periods of time, and the director contents himself with a wide shot, not bothering to give us a the visual crutch of a close-up. What is the character thinking? Who can tell? Guess! We spend much of the movie watching the back of Gary Oldman’s head. If I hadn’t read the book prior to seeing the film, I doubt I would’ve had the faintest idea what was going on.

Oldman plays George Smiley, who despite being in the British secret service, is a sort of anti-James Bond. He does everything slowly, methodically. He spends much of his time on paperwork. All his legwork is done by other people. He lives a life of the mind, sitting back and watching the chess pieces move about the board, trying to deduce their strategy. There’s no glitz to his spy game, it’s a deliberately plodding movie, so that you pay attention to every detail that swings across the screen. I’ve never been so mentally conflicted about a film while watching it, I was simultaneously fascinated and bored out of my mind.

What kept my attention, though, was Gary Oldman’s performance. I’ve long been a staunch fan of Oldman’s, who’s made a career of bringing gravitas to every project he touches (both The Dark Knight and Harry Potter benefitted greatly from his appearance), no matter how silly (this is a man who was in Red Riding Hood, The Fifth Element, and Lost In Space, after all). Here, his performance is center stage, the camera permanently fixed on him, and Oldman takes that mantle and does… nothing at all. He pulls back, keeping all emotion shrouded, making you watch him carefully the whole movie, waiting for the gaps and breaks that you know have to appear at some point. It’s a credit to the Academy that a performance this subtle won an Oscar nomination, there’s nothing Oldman does this whole picture that ever feels like acting.

Which, I suppose, is a pretty great compliment when you think about it.