Moral Equivalence in the New Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (opening nationally December 9) is in many ways a brilliant new adaptation of the John Le Carré novel, with Gary Oldman in the role of George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness in the BBC films from the late 1970s.)  Acting, direction, and art direction are all superb, and the film perfectly captures the somber, murky world of John Le Carré's novels.

And yet, it wouldn't be John Le Carré without what the left calls "moral complexity," and what the rest of us call "moral equivalence."  The film takes place at the height of the Cold War, and Le Carré flirts with a moral equivalence between the democracies of the West and murderous Communist dictatorships.

Le Carré, after all, is the author of The Constant Gardener, the leftist anti-Big Pharma book and movie.  In 2003, after 9/11, Le Carré wrote the essay "America Gone Mad," which rivals Michael Moore for Bush Derangement Syndrome.  In one short article, Le Carré refers to "the Bushies" and "Bush and his junta" and "the world's greatest cowboy" and "Bush and his fellow conspirators." Le Carré writes:

America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, and this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs, and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.

Curious for a Cold War novelist that all three of his examples of insanity concern America's battle with Communism.

Further on:

To be a member of the team, you must also believe in Absolute Good and Absolute Evil, and Bush, with a lot of help from his friends, family and God, is there to tell us which is which.

According to Le Carré and his fellow travelers, people who reduce the Cold War to good and evil are either evil themselves -- anti-communist witch-hunters like Joe McCarthy who harbor irrational fears and base motives, who delight in destroying the lives of innocuous social democrats -- or simplistic jingoists -- cold warriors like Ronald Reagan, who called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," evoking paroxysms of rage from the intellectual elites, or George W. Bush, who stirred up similar cries of alarm with his post-Cold War "axis of evil" phase.

Three lines from the Tinker Tailor script stand out:

1. Smiley says to his Soviet arch-enemy Karla: "Look, we've both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another's systems.  Don't you think it's time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?"

This is an incomprehensible statement, especially coming from a British spy who is intimately familiar with the Soviet "system," the one that murdered tens of millions and subjected its population to decades of terror, targeted famine, gulags, bread lines, corruption, environmental despoliation, anti-Semitism, and -- which should really horrify leftists -- massive income inequality between the nomenklatura and the proletariat.  In the balance, Britain had "Benny Hill" and crummy Vauxhall cars.

2. The mole (traitor) says to Smiley: "I had to pick a side, George.  It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.  The West has grown so very ugly, don't you think?"

This is a character speaking, but you can imagine a certain segment of the audience nodding their heads, condemning the ugly consumerism of the West and its ugly imperialism, ugly Halliburton, ugly Guantánamo, ugly blood for oil, ugly Bush Lied, Kids Died.  The line presents a ripe opportunity for Smiley to respond with a defense of Western values, but in the script we read: "Smiley doesn't answer.  A moment of silence."

How bizarre to think of the Cold War as an aesthetic choice rather than a moral one.  But there is something profound here.  The left consistently champions the most bloodthirsty tyrants -- Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Jeremiah Wright, etc.  Turning this into an aesthetic choice makes it possible to overlook the moral failings -- mass murder and the like -- of their heroes.  Thus, they can reject the squaresville capitalist businessman in his gray flannel suit and choose the revolutionary chic of the Mao cap with a red star.  Strike a radical pose in a Che t-shirt and shock the bourgeoisie.

If we interpret ugliness literally, the Soviet Union was aesthetically very ugly, with its brutal concrete architecture, industrial pollution, and shoddy design evident in everything from toilet paper to nuclear plants to toasters that caught fire.  Ironically, in the 1970s, Britain experienced some of the same Soviet ugliness because of the Labor Party's experiment with central planning, nationalization of industry, and Soviet-style urban renewal.  Theodore Dalrymple writes of the council flat landscape of postwar Britain:

Britain then undertook an orgy of urban destruction unparalleled in peacetime. The Luftwaffe had been bungling amateurs, it turned out, compared with the town and city fathers of Britain. The Germans managed to destroy a few cities-though none utterly beyond repair, if a will to repair had existed-but the local authorities ruined practically everything, with a thoroughness that would have been admirable in a good cause.

3. Finally, to introduce anti-Americanism in a battle between British and Soviet spies, the scriptwriter has Smiley say: "The Americans have had [Karla] tortured.  (He holds up his right hand.)  No fingernails."

Just like Bush and his junta at Guantánamo!

Despite the leftist attitudes evident in this dialogue and in Le Carré's politics, it's clear who the good guys are in Tinker Tailor.  Thus, on a dramatic level, the film's moral lessons are unambiguous.  We see the Russians brutally murder people and torture one of the British intelligence agents.  The British never resort to skulduggery and, for all their foibles and quirks, are portrayed as flawed but decent blokes fighting for Queen and country.  They defeat the Russians with cunning and hard work; Smiley pulls all-nighters like a diligent college student.  The plot revolves around a traitor, and there's never a suggestion of sympathy for a rat who would betray his country.  One moving subplot involves the quest of a British agent to save his lover from life behind the Iron Curtain.

It's as if the filmmakers feared that the moral clarity of the plot would be scorned by the sophisticates, and so they watered it down with dialogue that establishes relativist bona fides.  This attempt fails, however, since audiences will still interpret Tinker Tailor as a battle between good and evil, cheering on the West and rooting for the downfall of Communism.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (opening nationally December 9) is in many ways a brilliant new adaptation of the John Le Carré novel, with Gary Oldman in the role of George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness in the BBC films from the late 1970s.)  Acting, direction, and art direction are all superb, and the film perfectly captures the somber, murky world of John Le Carré's novels.

And yet, it wouldn't be John Le Carré without what the left calls "moral complexity," and what the rest of us call "moral equivalence."  The film takes place at the height of the Cold War, and Le Carré flirts with a moral equivalence between the democracies of the West and murderous Communist dictatorships.

Le Carré, after all, is the author of The Constant Gardener, the leftist anti-Big Pharma book and movie.  In 2003, after 9/11, Le Carré wrote the essay "America Gone Mad," which rivals Michael Moore for Bush Derangement Syndrome.  In one short article, Le Carré refers to "the Bushies" and "Bush and his junta" and "the world's greatest cowboy" and "Bush and his fellow conspirators." Le Carré writes:

America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, and this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs, and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.

Curious for a Cold War novelist that all three of his examples of insanity concern America's battle with Communism.

Further on:

To be a member of the team, you must also believe in Absolute Good and Absolute Evil, and Bush, with a lot of help from his friends, family and God, is there to tell us which is which.

According to Le Carré and his fellow travelers, people who reduce the Cold War to good and evil are either evil themselves -- anti-communist witch-hunters like Joe McCarthy who harbor irrational fears and base motives, who delight in destroying the lives of innocuous social democrats -- or simplistic jingoists -- cold warriors like Ronald Reagan, who called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," evoking paroxysms of rage from the intellectual elites, or George W. Bush, who stirred up similar cries of alarm with his post-Cold War "axis of evil" phase.

Three lines from the Tinker Tailor script stand out:

1. Smiley says to his Soviet arch-enemy Karla: "Look, we've both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another's systems.  Don't you think it's time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?"

This is an incomprehensible statement, especially coming from a British spy who is intimately familiar with the Soviet "system," the one that murdered tens of millions and subjected its population to decades of terror, targeted famine, gulags, bread lines, corruption, environmental despoliation, anti-Semitism, and -- which should really horrify leftists -- massive income inequality between the nomenklatura and the proletariat.  In the balance, Britain had "Benny Hill" and crummy Vauxhall cars.

2. The mole (traitor) says to Smiley: "I had to pick a side, George.  It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.  The West has grown so very ugly, don't you think?"

This is a character speaking, but you can imagine a certain segment of the audience nodding their heads, condemning the ugly consumerism of the West and its ugly imperialism, ugly Halliburton, ugly Guantánamo, ugly blood for oil, ugly Bush Lied, Kids Died.  The line presents a ripe opportunity for Smiley to respond with a defense of Western values, but in the script we read: "Smiley doesn't answer.  A moment of silence."

How bizarre to think of the Cold War as an aesthetic choice rather than a moral one.  But there is something profound here.  The left consistently champions the most bloodthirsty tyrants -- Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Jeremiah Wright, etc.  Turning this into an aesthetic choice makes it possible to overlook the moral failings -- mass murder and the like -- of their heroes.  Thus, they can reject the squaresville capitalist businessman in his gray flannel suit and choose the revolutionary chic of the Mao cap with a red star.  Strike a radical pose in a Che t-shirt and shock the bourgeoisie.

If we interpret ugliness literally, the Soviet Union was aesthetically very ugly, with its brutal concrete architecture, industrial pollution, and shoddy design evident in everything from toilet paper to nuclear plants to toasters that caught fire.  Ironically, in the 1970s, Britain experienced some of the same Soviet ugliness because of the Labor Party's experiment with central planning, nationalization of industry, and Soviet-style urban renewal.  Theodore Dalrymple writes of the council flat landscape of postwar Britain:

Britain then undertook an orgy of urban destruction unparalleled in peacetime. The Luftwaffe had been bungling amateurs, it turned out, compared with the town and city fathers of Britain. The Germans managed to destroy a few cities-though none utterly beyond repair, if a will to repair had existed-but the local authorities ruined practically everything, with a thoroughness that would have been admirable in a good cause.

3. Finally, to introduce anti-Americanism in a battle between British and Soviet spies, the scriptwriter has Smiley say: "The Americans have had [Karla] tortured.  (He holds up his right hand.)  No fingernails."

Just like Bush and his junta at Guantánamo!

Despite the leftist attitudes evident in this dialogue and in Le Carré's politics, it's clear who the good guys are in Tinker Tailor.  Thus, on a dramatic level, the film's moral lessons are unambiguous.  We see the Russians brutally murder people and torture one of the British intelligence agents.  The British never resort to skulduggery and, for all their foibles and quirks, are portrayed as flawed but decent blokes fighting for Queen and country.  They defeat the Russians with cunning and hard work; Smiley pulls all-nighters like a diligent college student.  The plot revolves around a traitor, and there's never a suggestion of sympathy for a rat who would betray his country.  One moving subplot involves the quest of a British agent to save his lover from life behind the Iron Curtain.

It's as if the filmmakers feared that the moral clarity of the plot would be scorned by the sophisticates, and so they watered it down with dialogue that establishes relativist bona fides.  This attempt fails, however, since audiences will still interpret Tinker Tailor as a battle between good and evil, cheering on the West and rooting for the downfall of Communism.