I very much enjoyed the extremely intricate “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which harkens back to the 1970s and the era of Cold War espionage. It focuses on the British MI-6 agency and is about as far in spirit from the James Bond movies as possible. George Smiley, the film’s protagonist, is no suave 007, but a sober analyst whose life has been broken by the spy business. Played expertly by Gary Oldman, he comes out of retirement and methodically seeks out a mole within the ranks of British intelligence.
Based on a 1974 novel by John Le Carre, the story seems to be based on the Cambridge 5, a famous British espionage ring that was exposed in the 1950s. They were a group of British agents who became communists while students during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, many in the West were attracted to Marxism because the chronically high unemployment of the period made it seem as if capitalism had failed. At the same time, the growth of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s 5-Year Plan of forced industrialization led many to believe it was the land of the future. Others were attracted to communism because they thought that the USSR was standing up to fascism while the Western democracies dithered as Hitler’s power grew. After the revelation of the Stalinist terror campaigns of the 30s, along with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939, many leftists soured on communism. Nevertheless, when the Cambridge 5 joined British intelligence, they passed along state secrets to the KGB during World War II and into the early years of the Cold War.
The film takes place during the Cold War and reveals some similarities between that struggle and the war on terror. Both saw concerns regarding government secrecy and about how far to go with regard to interrogation of suspects. Furthermore, both eras featured fears about the possibilities of fifth columns undermining national security.