It’s a gray day in London and two men in suits contemplate chess pieces crowned with crumpled photographs of double agents employed by Britain’s secret spy service, code-named “The Circus.”
“There’s a rotten apple,” whispers curmudgeonly MI6 boss Control (played by John Hurt) to his underling. “And we have to find it.”
It’s not Tom Cruise dangling from the world’s tallest office building, but the mind games played in upcoming espionage thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy prove every bit as riveting — and a hell of a lot more realistic — than the shoot-’em-ups we’ve come to expect from Hollywood spy spectacles.
“James Bond films are great to look at and a lot of fun but they are fairy tales,” said director Tomas Alfredson in a Skype interview with Wired.com. “They are not in any way close to anything [that happened] in reality in those days within MI5 or MI6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not a documentary of course, but I wanted to do a film that was accurate about how it felt and how it looked, and give at least an interpretation of how it actually was.”
The film adaptation of John le Carré’s classic Cold War espionage novel, opening Dec. 9, is the latest low-key espionage story to serve as a brooding reality check to the bigger, badder, louder school of action-fantasy embodied by the James Bond and Mission: Impossible movie franchises. In place of gunplay, car chases and building-hopping, this alt-spy fare focuses on the psychological toll exacted on professional liars who, more often than not, wind up being pawns in their own spy games.
Set in 1973, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s story builds suspense around a succession of intimate betrayals as world-weary George Smiley, played with understated perfection by Gary Oldman, tries to figure out which of his paper-shuffling colleagues is shoveling secrets to the Soviets.
“For me, this is a film about loyalty and friendship that has the Cold War as backdrop,” said Alfredson, who wryly describes his movie’s visual template as “damp tweed.”
If Tinker, Tailor’s unglamorous portrait of Cold War spycraft hews close to reality, recently released documentary The Man Nobody Knew flows directly from the strange exploits of William Colby, who led the CIA during one of its most maligned periods and testified before Congress about the spy agency’s “family jewels.”
Seen through the eyes of Colby’s filmmaker son Carl, the movie reveals the damage that a career as a spy can wreak on loved ones — and the questions that can linger.
“Did my father every really love anybody or were we just window dressing, a convenient cover?” Carl Colby asked, recounting his life abroad as the son of a spook in a phone interview with Wired.com.