Wednesday, June 6, 2012

the ghost and the tinker: a study in contrasts

It's difficult to imagine a more disparate pair of movies than "Mission: Impossible-- Ghost Protocol" (MIGP) and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (TTSS). While both films are members of the spy genre, their approaches to that genre differ in almost every respect. And yet, despite their diametrically opposed sensibilities, they're both thoroughly entertaining. Holding them up together for comparison will give us a chance to explore the depth of their differences, and also to ponder what it means to be entertained by a film.

Two quick, one-paragraph summaries, then, to orient the newbie.

MIGP (2011) is the fourth of the Mission: Impossible films. Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg are back as super-agent Ethan Hunt and super-techie Benji Dunn, respectively. Benji's passed his field exam, so he can now run around with Ethan while wearing disguises, speaking Russian, and even holding a gun. Benji's paired up with Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and the team soon acquires a fourth: William Brandt (Jeremy Renner, who's on a cinematic roll). The movie begins with several converging plot lines: (1) Ethan's in a Russian prison, gathering intelligence; (2) Benji and Carter, unaware of Ethan's real mission, have come to Russia to break him out; (3) Carter is fresh off a failed mission in Budapest, in which Russian nuclear launch codes have been stolen by a French assassin (who also killed Carter's boyfriend); (4) a terrorist rogue codenamed Cobalt (Kurt Hendricks, played by Michael Nyqvist) is planning to use those codes to provoke a nuclear war between Russia and the US as part of his belief that humanity is strengthened by the occasional apocalypse. That's the basic setup. What follows is essentially a chase movie: Hendricks blows up part of the Kremlin, pinning the blame on Ethan's team ("Ghost Protocol" refers to the US president's disavowal of Ethan et al.); in Dubai, Hendricks also gets the launch codes from Sabine Moreau (a disconcertingly baggy-eyed Léa Seydoux), the French assassin. The chase leads to India, where Hendricks and his sidekick Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) break into an Indian TV station and manage to relay a missile launch command to a Russian submarine. The action-packed remainder of the film is all about stopping the missile. Does the team succeed? Well, what do you think?

TTSS (2011) is based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name (Le Carré, pulling a Stan Lee, appears at least twice in quick cameos). The story, which takes place in the 1970s, begins with a passing of the torch at the highest levels of British intelligence-- MI6, nicknamed the Circus: hoary old Control (John Hurt, looking miserable as usual) is stepping down along with his trusted lieutenant, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Taking Control's place is puny, pugnacious Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), whose brainchild is a network codenamed Witchcraft. Control's departure comes on the heels of a failed mission in Budapest (cf. MIGP, above), in which Control's man Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot and apparently killed. Soviet agents spread the word that Prideaux had attempted the kidnapping of a Hungarian general, but in reality the mission was predicated on Control's suspicion that the Russians have had a mole inside the Circus for years. Control dies soon after his "retirement," and government intelligence liaison Oliver Lacon (the always-smarmy Simon McBurney) asks Smiley to pursue Control's theory. Smiley enlists the aid of young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch-- he of the infamous cheekbones) to suss out the Circus members, all of whom had been given codenames by Control: Percy Alleline (Tinker), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth as Tailor), Roy Bland (Ciáran Hinds as Soldier), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik as Poorman). One of these men is the mole, and each one could fit the profile. The movie proceeds as a sort of whodunit, with the selling of British secrets replacing the traditional murder victim. As Smiley meticulously and inexorably deduces his way to the truth, he comes to realize that, in the larger scheme of the Cold War, the Brits are the dupes: Russia's intention, all along, has been to use Alleline's Witchcraft network to spy on the Americans, with whom Alleline has been keen to make friends. Behind these machinations is the specter of Karla, a Russian operative who has risen in the Soviet ranks and is now the puppet master making the Brits dance. Does Smiley figure out who the mole is? You get only one guess.

On almost every level, with almost every aspect of filmmaking you can think of, these two movies are diametrically opposed. It matters little which aspect I begin with, so I'll plunge in with a discussion of how each film handles its main villain, then go from there.

Visibility of the main villain. The big bad guy in MIGP is Kurt Hendricks, an insane genius who, thanks to his espionage training and his time with the Swedish Special Forces, does his own infiltration work despite his advanced age.* The movie is at pains to build Hendricks up as physically imposing, and he enjoys quite a bit of screen time. Hendricks is, you might say, a very hands-on baddie, as physical as he is intellectual, always one step ahead of the IMF** team. By contrast, in TTSS, the main villain-- Karla-- is never seen directly: we receive only glimpses. His presence is nonetheless felt thanks to a marvelous script that makes him into a pervasive, Sauron-like phantom. When the normally taciturn Smiley has a drink and opens up to young Peter Guillam about his long-ago encounter with Karla, we learn that Karla never said a word during the encounter. The irony, here, is that this is normally Smiley's tactic: our protagonist quietly gathers data and makes his careful deductions before acting. I was very impressed with how the script made Karla a real presence, a real threat, throughout the movie. The search for the mole inside the Circus, which occupies most of the film, is actually a sideshow: the main event is the battle of wills and wits between Smiley and Karla.

Pace and visuals. Here as well, MIGP and TTSS stand in contrast with each other. MIGP is a young person's movie: its scenes are, for the most part, brightly and unsubtly lit, and the script propels us forward at breakneck speed. The Russian prison has its stark fluorescent lights; the dramatic Kremlin explosion (I wonder what Russian audiences thought of that) occurs in the daytime; the Burj Khalifa scenes-- even the sandstorm!-- were all the opposite of murky; even the interior and exterior scenes in India made use of strong color contrasts. TTSS, meanwhile, is drab and subdued: London is stereotypically gray (so gray that it was grey); the scenes in Budapest are either interior shots or cloudy exteriors; most of the London interiors are wan and shadowy. TTSS's pace is different, too; this isn't an action movie so much as a thinker's movie, and there were moments when I felt that the film had been directed by Clint Eastwood. The camera work is stately and unpretentious; there are no violent smash cuts to get our blood pumping, no complicated chase scenes. TTSS's antiquated costume design does a marvelous job of evoking the Cold War era,*** and most of its intrigue comes from ambient hints, subtle facial expressions, and layered dialogue. Which leads me to...

Expository dialogue. MIGP's script is written like a condensed version of the TV series "24." Most of its dialogue is expository-- not so much about revealing character as about keeping the viewer abreast of the rapidly changing circumstances. TTSS, on the other hand, uses dialogue both to develop character and to provide the watchful viewer with hints as to what is to come. While some of TTSS's dialogue is occasionally expository, the story requires the viewer to do his own thinking. When a character like field agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) delivers a long spiel, it's not so much the content of Tarr's discourse that matters as what Smiley makes of it.

Music. MIGP's soundtrack comes courtesy of the talented Michael Giacchino (juh-KEE-noh), who also scored "The Incredibles" and 2009's "Star Trek." I thoroughly enjoyed Giacchino's versatility in his scoring of "The Incredibles," a movie that mixed the superhero and spy genres. The music for that film had a cool retro feel at times, but easily transitioned into the more grandiose strains that we expect when titans are dueling-- all without losing that lighthearted tone that is a Giacchino trademark. I think this style worked less well with "Star Trek": I have a hard time forgiving Giacchino for creating such a catchy theme, then beating that theme to death in almost every scene. And the lightheartedness that worked so well for a Pixar animation didn't work nearly as well for a science-fiction blockbuster. I didn't hate the soundtrack for "Star Trek," but I did feel that it revealed Giacchino's limits. His score for MIGP confirmed those limits: I've begun to realize that Giacchino is a director's go-to guy if the movie in question isn't particularly deep. That said, the best musical moment, for me, was the soundtrack's soaring tribute to the majestic Burj Khalifa. The worst moments were the intros to Russia and India: both were painfully stereotypical. I cringed.

By contrast, the soundtrack for TTSS was marked by its thoughtful, slow-jazz leitmotifs. Original music was provided by Alberto Iglesias, who is not, as far as I can tell, related to singer Julio Iglesias, whose version of Charles Trenet's "La Mer" is what we hear during the movie's conclusion. TTSS's music is subtle, the opposite of bombast; it never dominates a scene. I don't know much about Iglesias's career in the movie business, but I can see him being in demand among noir directors.

Our protagonists, and how the good guys win. Because MIGP and TTSS occupy such different cinematic universes, it's nearly impossible to imagine a crossover film in which the respective protagonists have a chance to match wits. Ethan Hunt's kinetic modus operandi involves a lot of running, jumping, climbing, and hand-to-hand combat (I'm trying to remember whether he fired a single shot in the entire film); George Smiley, meanwhile, is like the spider that sits at the center of its web, immovable, patiently testing the vibrations and allowing all enemies and information to flow toward him. Smiley's style isn't merely the result of his age; it's a function of his personality. While Hunt and Smiley both recognize the need for teamwork, their management styles differ. Hunt's unspoken motto seems to be the Marines' "Improvise, adapt, overcome"; his team spends much of its time coping with faulty technology, and with an enemy who seems able to anticipate their every move. At the end of the film, Hunt even notes that "the only thing that functioned properly on that mission was this team." The socially awkward Smiley, meanwhile, isn't nearly so chummy with his underlings. At one point he tells his right-hand man, Peter Guillam, that he's sending the younger man "into the lion's den" and that Guillam will, if caught, have to disavow any knowledge of Smiley's activities, just as Smiley will do of Guillam's. It's a far cry from the ethic of "no man left behind," but Smiley's stance makes sense given the circumstances.

The IMF team's struggles involve playing catch-up against a clever enemy; Smiley and his men, meanwhile, gather their data and pounce only when they're absolutely sure. The closest Smiley gets to seeing any real action is when he removes his shoes while in the London-based Russian safe house and pads softly across the floor, gun in hand. In the end, when Smiley gets his man, there's no need even to fire it.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I found both of these movies, MIGP and TTSS, quite entertaining. MIGP isn't particularly cerebral; it's all about the chase-- the action, the adrenaline, the humor, the suspense. Kurt Hendricks, MIGP's villain, has a simple agenda: he wants to instigate a nuclear war as a way to pare down and purify the human race, for strength is born through struggle. TTSS, though, is all about the cerebral. It's not obvious what Karla wants, and Karla's presence is more inferred than revealed. Far from leading us viewers by the nose and keeping us abreast of the plot twists through clear-cut camera work and detailed expository dialogue, TTSS obliges us to deduce, interpret, surmise, and conjecture-- right along with the characters themselves. We're given hints, phrases, and shadowy implications. Much of the important information is non-verbal. The movie doesn't treat the audience as stupid, and it definitely rewards multiple viewings. The plot of TTSS is beautifully put together, and it's certainly the more profound of the two movies.

But both films are ably directed (Brad Bird for MIGP; Tomas Alfredson for TTSS), and both understand economy of expression: not a single moment is wasted in either film. How is it possible to be almost equally entertained by two such different stories? I imagine it's because the eyes and the brain need different sorts of food. Sometimes the eyes-- and the adrenal glands-- demand good, heart-pounding action; sometimes the brain harrumphs and demands a good puzzle. Entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes; surely there's room in this world for two very different approaches to the spy genre!

*This required a rather significant suspension of disbelief, but the story asks us to take on faith that the old, plump Hendricks is the physical match of Tom Cruise.

**IMF stands for Impossible Mission Force. Hard to say with a straight face.

***One of TTSS's main costume designers, Jacqueline Durran, said that she had deliberately chosen 1960s-style clothing as an exaggerated way to evoke the 1970s. I'd say her trick worked.


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