John le Carré’s Cold Spy Diamonds

George Smiley’s Best Friend

 DATELINE:  Spy Writer of Cold War

With the passing of  John le Carré at age 89 at the end of 2020, we have the true ending to the Cold War. If anyone managed to portray it for forty years in all its cold-hearted, ruthless, black and white ennui, it was this master writer.

If you wanted spy humor, you went to James Bond. If you wanted spy thrills, you turned the the former spy who worked for MI-6 and then worked for himself as a novelist.

Back in the 1960s, if you  wanted a thinking man’s spy thriller, you went to a film based on John le Carré, and if you wanted a thriller with twists, you went to Mission: Impossible. If you wanted laughs, you turned to James Bond.

He created one dull master spy who was deadlier than 007. That was George Smiley. Some of the greatest actors jumped at the chance to play him—even if they changed his name to something less ironic in the adaptations.

You can find Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Denholm Elliot,  Gary Oldman, and James Mason, all playing Smiley.

In one film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you will find Tom Hardy as a slimeball gay agent. Now he has graduated to be the next James Bond.

All-star casts wanted to play small roles in these chess-match movies. You needed nerves of steel to be an espionage agent who was treated like T-paper at the end of the roll. Great actors like Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Oskar Werner, Hugh Laurie, Maximilian Schell, and others wanted roles in various versions.

The stories and characters are all of a piece, no matter who directed and when they came together. The seminal opener was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or two versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  You might find The Night Manager a surprise, or Deadly Affair  so different from your usual spy novel/movie fare.

This grand writer of espionage and spies has left us with a brilliant legacy and a smorgasbord  of human drama. Whether it happens in the rivalry between Soviets and Americans, the psychology and personality of the men who did this work make for compelling tales.

We think John le Carré (a pen name for David Cornwell) will live forever, and we did enjoy his cameo appearance inThe Night Managerin his latter years. Start anywhere. You can’t go wrong with watching—or reading a master storyteller.

 

 

 

Air Force One is One Fat Half-Wit

DATELINE: Ford Trumps Lincoln

 Prez Ford Shoots from Hip

Can it be that Trump thinks he is Harrison Ford in the hilarious presidential/terrorist movie called Air Force One?

Delusion takes many forms: for a fat old man to see himself as an idealized President Harrison Ford may not be a stretch for Mr. Trump. Here’s a president who goes off script in public speeches, much to the shock of his aides.

Ford’s president is no Gerald and no Lincoln. He orders outrageous tactical attacks on the Ukraine in conjunction with the Russian president! In 1997’s now sentient movie about the future of the American presidency should give everyone a nightmare.

Gary Oldman shows up with a suspicious crew in Moscow who plan to board Air Force One and do mayhem. Back at the White House, Vice President Glenn Close and Secretary of Defense Dean Stockwell are at loggerheads. The U.S. government is run by buffoons. Most of the movie takes place in mid-air: They are on a jet flying around, but there is not even the hum of an engine in this aircraft.

Within a matter of moments, the terror team has fairly much wiped out the highly trained and highly touted Secret Service aboard the aircraft. Hmmm. This is not a high recommendation for American protection service. We suppose most people tell themselves that it’s only a movie meant to give Harrison Ford some heroic moments.

Since this film takes place in the years right before 9-11, there is something creepy about a stolen plane filled with hostages about to fly into some kind of explosive crash.

Of course, the POTUS here is a Medal of Honor winner who was a hero in Vietnam: no, it’s not John McCain, but it isn’t exactly Trump. However, the President is surrounded by a bunch of cowering bureaucrats or power-grabbing traitors.

In one ridiculous moment, the President must cross fuel line wires to dump fuel: we figure this is realistic because Trump crosses wires daily. As a stable genius, we presume Trump can also fly Air Force One.

It is a cynical view of entertainment.

 

 

Tinker, Tailor, Puzzle-maker

DATELINE: Cold Warriors

Hardy boy

 Hunky Hardy Boy!

If you want to be challenged by John LeCarre’s masterpiece of espionage during the Cold War, you might well take in the movie version of George Smiley’s hard work in finding a mole that caused the death of Control in the British secret service.

One kingfish at the agency seems to have a direct connection to the Kremlin. Though Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been forced out into retirement with his mentor, Control (John Hurt), he must work covertly to restore the integrity of the Circus.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is for those who enjoy armchair psychology and thought-provoking shades of gray.

Through complex flashbacks, and even more complex human relationships, you will find these are not pleasant men. The cast is stellar beyond compare: Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, are stand-outs.

The sexual peccadilloes are unspoken, but there is a strong scent of blackmail and unspoken ties among the men. It is nearly as much a guessing game about their bedtime bedmates as it is about their political bedmates.

The complexity and subtlety of the film probably makes it beyond the tolerance level of your standard James Bond satire fans. This is the low-key, grubby, office worker mentality of the Cold War. Oldman is particularly wooden to hide his tormented feelings.

Every spy ought to be brought in from this Cold War before their tedious work drives them to distraction.

Oldman plays much older, and the young men (Hardy and Cumberbatch) had better days ahead as superstars. They could not be more stunningly attractive in 2011 and quickly made a mark with this film.

 

Darkest Hour Before Gary Oldman

DATELINE:  Two Fine Hours

Oldman Churchill Oldman Churchill!

Gary Oldman had several makeup specialists to help him take on the dowdy appearance of an old reprobate as he played the gin-swilling, cigar-chomping temperamental British prime minister during World War II, the irascible Winston Churchill.

You might think he won Best Actor Oscar for his prosthetic achievement, but his performance is a gem—and you can almost forgive him for playing Commissioner Gordon in the Batman movies.

Joe Wright’s Churchill movie is quite different from the many others that have come and gone over the past few years. In the past you had Albert Finney, and in the distant past you had Timothy Spall and even Richard Burton. We could go on and on.

The latest version takes on a slightly different approach, lending itself to atmosphere, style, and a human touch. This Churchill’s worst enemies are his own conservative party members—and appeasing, peace at any price types who want to work things out with Hitler.

The film also takes the non-epic approach to the rescue of British soldiers at Dunkirk. That movie was the arch-rival to the Darkest Hour at the Oscars.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays wife Clemmie and Lily James does a turn as Churchill’s private secretary, but make no mistake, the bull in the china shop is Oldman, almost unrecognizable and totally convincing, perhaps with the performance of his life.

The film puts its focus on a short time when Churchill had to convince the public, and his King, that he was the man for the job. A couple of bravura scenes make the film well-worth the time, in which Churchill challenges himself to ride the subway to find how the common citizens feel, and his stirring speech that set Hitler on the road to ruin.

You can fit Darkest Hour on your DVD shelf next to The King’s Speech, as grand use of oratory skills and language during World War II.

It’s Oldman & Hardy, Not Laurel & Hardy

DATELINE:  Serial Killer in Soviet Union

Pictured: Oldman & Hardy

Oldman & Hardy

 

Child 44 is a brutal murder mystery. However, it is far more than the sum of its parts. It cost a pretty penny to make, extremely well-produced, but just who is the audience?

Banned in Russia, the film depicts an infamous serial killer of young boys in the Soviet Union in the early 1950s—and how several government military police investigate to undercover him. It is all the more difficult because Stalinist Russia does not recognize the concept of “murder in paradise.”

This is not entertainment in any traditional sense.

Tom Hardy continues to impress as the disgraced, but dedicated military hero. He works here with Noomi Rapace as his wife who is under suspicion as a British agent. They are hounded and forced to solve murders to save their skins.

Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy team up again, but the only fun is watching their nuanced performances in a disturbing story.

Director Daniel Espinosa does not paint a pretty picture. With its grey drab settings amid a depressing world of the Soviet regime, the film was banned in Putin’s Russia, though it probably deserves to be seen there.

What really transpires is a story of how a homicide bureau was finally established in Moscow.

Gary Oldman and Charles Dance are recognizable faces in the cast, but Philip Seymour Hoffman died before he could join them as one of the Soviet heads of the military.

If we recommend a movie like this, it is because it is striking in its utter dark vision. This is not a picture you want to view to escape dreary, rainy days.

Once again, a good film generally must have viewers who appreciate the message and the artfulness. As we progress into the 21st century of video games and shallow entertainment, intelligent and dark movies are an endangered species. This one joins the list.

 

It’s Not Paranoia If You’re Obsessive-Compulsive

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP!

This curio movie stars a generic leading man in a tale about businessmen with no scruples. It seems like a story we have seen on screen before. Robert Luketic directs Paranoia, but it’s more like a bad case of OCD and worse case of scriptwriting.

Liam Helmsworth is handsome and winsome. He is also vapid and canned. His New Yorker mover and shaker wants the big time, but he believes old men of today are ruthless and hold back the younger generation. Channing Tatum would have played it more convincingly with an edge.

With his killer looks and GQ body, Liam Helmsworth is a likely corporate boy-toy. He is groomed and blackmailed by one old man to be a corporate James Bond against another. We suspect he would have been singled out as a paid companion before any thought of making him an espionage agent.

The old men are the really interesting part of the movie.

Gary Oldman has about him a dangerous and smarmy quality well suited to be the corporate Henry Higgins making over his boy spy to take on the aging archenemy played by Harrison Ford in slouch mode.

These brilliant old stars have gone from being red giants to white dwarfs. It’s not like they are taking any port in a storm or any role in a movie to remain relevant, but we are still glad to see them flash their stuff. Liam Helmsworth looks like a pretty and empty Brooks Brothers gray flannel suit next to them.

Of course, someone in central casting decided to let Richard Dreyfuss play the broken down father of Helmsworth (he’s Thor’s younger brother by the way). Only in Hollywood fantasy could anyone think pipsqueak Dreyfuss could sire a Playgirl centerfold.

Put aside any thoughts of classic business tales like Executive Suite or Patterns. In fact, this is not even up to the quality of Wall Street or The Social Network. Excess in style, realism, verisimilitude, and taste, has become the new yardstick of making a movie relevant to anyone under 25.

No wonder the new generation thinks the great stars are best suited to playing doddering amoral old men.  The end of this pip is a groaner of the up-teenth magnitude.

Read more movie insights from William Russo in MOVIE MASHUP and ALFRED HITCHCOCK FRESHLY SHOWERED. All books are available at Amazon.com in softcover.

A Movie of Quality? No Smiley Face Here

DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP!

 Image

Denholm’s Smiley Face

When John le Carre develops his own best-selling novel for one of those prestigious TV movies done by the BBC or their stand-in, you have to be curious.

When it turns out to be a George Smiley story, you know you may have a treat to behold. Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman have played the pedestrian spy.  Back in 1991 Denholm Elliott came up with another dead-on portrait of the man so mundane that you’d think he was an accountant, but he is deadlier and smarter than James Bond ever was.

Those familiar with the two versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy know exactly what Smiley keeps under wraps.

Smiley is called out of retirement by friend (Glenda Jackson in one of her final acting roles). She sends him to a posh boys’ school where everyone knows faculty play power trip games and bolster their egos at the expense of adolescent boys.

Joss Ackland is one of those aging Byronesque faculty on the campus, and in an early role as a student is Christian Bale. As you might expect, the only difference in the earnest and focused performance of Bale then and now is that he is a teenager. Cast aside those American teenage actors; Bale is the real deal even at 16.

If you want to see the nescient actor, you won’t. Bale is fully developed from the get-go.

We must admit our fondness for non-glamorous, retired old characters that still burn with brains unused. Like the Poirot/Christie stories, LeCarre is able to give audiences a puzzle that requires thought and mature attitude for full appreciation.

This is a treat for those who deserve better.

 

Ossurworld’s William Russo has several movie review books that highlight the best films of all-time and of the present year. MOVIE MASHUP and ALFRED HITCHCOCK FRESHLY SHOWERED are available at Amazon.com in softcover.