I finally got around to watching the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie with Gary Oldman as the diffident George Smiley, very well acted in the usual all-British fashion even if most of it was apparently filmed in Hungary. The movie had some bad reviews and Amazon viewers mostly found it slow moving, but it is reasonably faithful to the John Le Carre novel it is based on and I rather suspect most of those disappointed expected a James Bond film complete with oversized villains and pyrotechnics. Le Carre was an actual British intelligence officer and German language specialist, working in Vienna after the war and later for MI6 in Bonn and Hamburg. But I often wonder at some of the tradecraft in his books, suggesting that he might have been a desk officer or analyst. One of Le Carre’s characters asserts that the one unbreakable rule in espionage is that the agent always selects the site of the meeting with his case officer, a completely absurd comment as it would in short order produce a pile of dead officers set up by their double agents. The case officer ALWAYS controls all aspects of the meeting if he wants to survive for more than two weeks. The movie’s central secret mission to Budapest in which an officer is shot would never have occurred in the real world because there would have been no way to establish security or vet the meeting site.
Be that as it may, there is one spectacular bit of video well worth the price of admission. It is a scene in which MI-6 is having its annual Christmas bash with Control (John Hurt) donning a rubber Lenin mask while wearing a Santa Claus costume. He leads the gang in singing the Soviet National Anthem and all join in, down to the lowliest filing clerk, singing along in Russian. The scene is marvelous because it juxtaposes a meandering George Smiley, who is not singing along, as he simultaneously discovers his wife Ann in a shadowy dalliance on the balcony with Colin Firth, who turns out to be the traitor. The first whiff of betrayal.
I inevitably recalled similar CIA Christmas parties in years gone by, but the boys would more likely have been singing verse after verse of the Ball at Kerrymuir and Charlotte the Harlot. I suppose that is the cultural difference between obtaining a first at Balliol and spending four years getting sloshed at Phi Delta Theta at Penn State. I seriously doubt that everyone at MI-6 in that era knew the words to the Soviet Anthem, but it was definitely true that British (and Soviet) case officers arrived on assignment overseas much better prepared than their US counterparts. Even in the 1980s when the biggest stations were in Europe most CIA officers would arrive overseas unable to speak the local language very well, a situation that has gotten worse as the critical languages needed to run operations are no longer Occidental, which Americans can at least relate to culturally. That is why most CIA officers now travel around with local interpreters and God only knows how that works out. Well, we actually know how it works out since seven CIA officers were killed at Khost Afghanistan in December 2010, largely because they were ignorant of their working environment and were relying on others to tell them what was going on. An Italian-deficient Chief of Station of mine in Rome in the 1980s, one of four in succession who were sent to language school but still couldn’t quite get the lingo, used to justify his ignorance by saying over and over again that “An op is an op.” Meaning that if you can diddle a Vietnamese you can diddle an Italian. Of course, they have to speak English so you can diddle them.