Friday, April 12, 2013

Spyfall

'Tis the cause makes all,
Degrades or hallows courage in its fall.

-Byron




What madness the Cold War seems today. A forty year nightmare that novelists John Le Carré and Ian Fleming made their bread and butter. I saw the new James Bond installment, Skyfall, within a week of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, made in 2011, and the coincidence made me wonder that the first movie, part of a franchise that was a product of the Cold War, is as anachronistic as the second movie, which is set firmly and definingly at the height of that thawed-out conflict.

Skyfall is the most expensive and explosive Bond to date. But it bothered me, for the opposite reasons why the Bond films bothered me throughout the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. Where did the movie's reason to exist go, and why do I feel more than ever that the franchise shouldn't persist? Skyfall's very success (in excess of a billion dollars) is reason enough, I think, to put Bond out to pasture. Tinker, incidentally, made less than $100 million.

About the only significant detail in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that bears on the present comes when Smiley relates the story of his first meeting with Karla, the future head of Soviet intelligence. By the time Smiley, on behalf of British intelligence, got to him, the Americans had "had a go" at him - his fingernails were missing. Smiley offers Karla to "come to the West and live a comfortable life." But Karla goes back to Moscow. When Smiley catches the "mole" near the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he's told that his decision to spy for the other side "was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly."

This is an instance of the pervasive anti-Americanism that runs throughout Le Carré's books. James Wood defined those books in his essay, "The Little Drummer Boy":

"Instead of Bond's easy triumphs, Le Carré presented liberal English muddle, the kind of mutely triumphant failure canonically formulated by George Eliot at the end of Middlemarch, in the famous summation: "But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." The English spies whom Le Carré wrote about were not exactly committing unhistoric acts; but theirs were hidden lives, lost in the complicated fog of the Cold War. Le Carré's characters were almost willfully unglamorous, closer to Oxford dons or mild headmasters than to political brokers. And no one would ever hear about their sacrifices and their courage, partly because they were naturally secret, and partly because their actual jobs were morally shabbier than the public wanted to know."

For eight years in the Navy, I served as an intelligence specialist. I was little more than a custodian of classified material, but in all that time I learned just one thing: that I was no good at it. I wasn't at all diverted by the fact that, every day, I had access to information that no one else did. It gave me no special pleasure. Like everything else in the military, it was reduced to drudgery. 

The West didn't win the Cold War because of Bond, a cartoon version of espionage, but because of squalid little men like Smiley, functionaries performing their miniscule duties in poorly-lit offices with bad ventilation. If Fleming and Le Carré had anything in common it was their distrust of - and distaste for - the Americans.  Le Carré's anti-Americanism took center stage in his work when the Cold War ended and it wasn't necessary to be anti-communist any more.

The 1974 Le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the absence of commas is never explained), was first made into a TV series in 1979, with Alec Guinness as Smiley and Patrick Stewart as Karla. If the series had advantages over the movie, and I think it did, one of them was the simple fact that it was made at a time when Le Carré's concerns were still real. The book and the series were validated by the times in which they were created. All these years later, it seems like it could've been about the Thirty Years' War.

As I recall, thirty years later, Alec Guinness was a bit of a cipher as Smiley. He looked more effete in those awful glasses than he perhaps intended. Gary Oldman is much better in the role, his vulnerability, thanks to his unfaithful wife Anne (whose face, just like Karla's, we never see) more in evidence. The rest of the movie cast is predictably fine for a British production - even one co-produced by French and German companies (there are eleven producers in the credits, including Le Carré). 

I think that I'd have liked the movie a bit more if the makers had been alive, or aware, when the events had fictionally taken place. The credits give a more prominent place than usual to the make-up and hair and the costume design. A good chunk of the movie's budget was spent on capturing the look of the story's world. The Swedish director, Tomas Alfredson, and his Dutch cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, obviously had a vision of that world as hellish - ponderously gloomy and grey. This grim, wan account of imagined people involved in fanciful events is as close to actuality as its author was authorized to take us. These unhappy Cold Warriors held the redoubt for the sake of our sound sleep.

There was a transcendent moment in the series that sticks in my memory. It was in the last episode, after Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen*) has killed the mole, Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson). He's in the boarding school church during a service and the boy named Jumbo, who has befriended Prideaux, is reading from Genesis: "And the Pharaoh said unto Joseph: forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this." Jumbo stumbles on the word "shewed", pronouncing it "shooed" - "Forasmuch as God hath shooed thee..." He tries it again, and stumbles. Then again. Finally Prideaux, absorbed by other thoughts, intones sadly, "Forasmuch as God hath showed thee all this."

Both Skyfall and Tinker Tailor are classified as thrillers, although they are at opposite ends of the genre. The suspense created in Skyfall depends on how convincingly the villain threatens the hero (and heroine). Bond is believed to be on the side of good, but only because - ostensibly anyway - it's our side. Le Carré is too cynical, or so he wants us to think, to portray our side as much nobler or virtuous (as in "possessing virtues") as the other side. His suspense is low intensity, even if the stakes are high. The question remains: why dredge up all this spent angst forty years later? There's no hope of recapturing the atmosphere of alarm that pervaded the Cold War. A film like Dr. Strangelove, though a satire, retains its power simply because its gallows humor was created in the shadow of the gallows, not safely in hindsight. There are fewer and fewer people who remember what it was like living under the threat of nuclear annihilation day in and day out.

The trouble with Skyfall is its insistence on making Bond human. Bullets can penetrate his body. He bleeds. After his three installments in the Bond franchise, Daniel Craig's Bond must have added a number of scars on his body to his distinguishing marks. As always, despite his being more human than Connery or Moore or Dalton or Brosnan, Craig's Bond defies the limits of human endurance. He's rather like Jesus - the son of God, but human enough to bleed and die. But by the end of Skyfall, with a brand new M (Ralph Fiennes), a new Q (Ben Whishaw), and even a new Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Bond's resurrection insures the future arrival of another episode.


*I liked Ian Bannen much more as Prideaux. What he suffered at the hands of Karla (emasculation was implied) makes his revenge on Hayden more convincing.

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