Circus Life: The Clockwork Pleasures of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

In the wake of the Second World War, changes emerged in the structure and nature of work in the industrialized West. Building on earlier shifts toward efficiency wrought by the advent of Fordism and Taylorism—movements that emphasized a breakdown of assembly line jobs into hyper-specialized roles—companies began to stress the need for capable managers, workers who could organize and streamline the efforts of other workers. Managers had existed before this point in time, of course, but the new manager of the post-war period took on definably new characteristics, to the point of becoming a stock figure, ripe for caricature.

Unsurprisingly, the wider culture felt the reverberations of this change. The new work conditions filtered their way down onto the page and screen, often in the form of satirical attacks on the deadening effects of the new managerial regime. Classic Hollywood comedies of the ‘50s and ‘60s like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Apartment made hay with the absurd aspects of the emerging hierarchy, both in broad strokes and specific details (both films have a fascination with the phenomenon of the executive washroom). The best satirical record of the new industrial model, Muriel Spark’s novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye, raises the question of whether its central character—the budding executive Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal), who uses managerial jargon to become employed at two rival firms simultaneously—might not be the devil himself.

The sense of the new manager as a distinctly comic figure made it hard for contemporaries to directly treat the working conditions of the new corporate model seriously—there’s no managerial equivalent of Death of a Salesman, and with good reason. But oblique treatments did emerge, none more unexpected, yet cogent, than the work of John le Carré. le Carré’s dark, cynical spy novels of the Cold War are rightly beloved as a realist’s rejoinder to the escapist fantasies of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and a sharp-eyed exploration of the shifting geopolitics of the post-war era, but this focus on the specific trappings of the spy trade means that critics have often overlooked how his novels distill the essence of the new managerial practices, in the process creating a valuable picture of the lived experience of working under these conditions.

Nowhere does le Carré shine his spotlight brighter on the figure of the new manager than in his masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Not coincidentally, though le Carré’s work has been adapted for film and television many times, far and away the best adaptation, Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, succeeds in large part because it understands le Carré’s underlying fascination with bureaucratic management. Alfredson’s film creates a mechanistic world ruled by the clock, where efficiency becomes the sole virtue; in doing so, the film captures both the inhuman aspects of such an environment, and the appeal of these conditions for a certain type of personality.


There is a mole in the Circus. No, not a burrowing rodent manning a trapeze; rather, there is a double agent who has infiltrated British intelligence at the height of the Cold War. So suspects Control (John Hurt), who runs the Circus with fastidious oversight. But who? Knowing it must be one of the five men next in command, he assigns each a codename—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman, Beggarman—and sends field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a mission to find out. Before he can, though, the mission is blown, and Control gets forced out of the Circus, dying soon after. His right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), comes out of forced retirement to track the double agent down, but when Smiley discovers that even he came under Control’s suspicion, he finds himself unsure about his entire career in the Circus.

Though staggeringly complex in their narrative twists, le Carré’s book and its film adaptation actually pivot on two simple questions. The first, a matter of simple fact: who is the mole? The second, more abstract and personal: what makes a good boss, and a good work environment? Smiley, we learn, had always felt secure under Control’s protection. But Control’s suspicion of him, and the whole hunt for the mole, reveal a Circus riddled with corruption, indifference, and hypocrisy; a place where personal life must be suppressed under a mask of duty.


In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre identifies the manager as one of three key stock figures of the 20th century, along with the aesthete and the therapist. Tracing the rise of the corporate manager alongside that of a parallel role, the civil servant, MacIntyre observes that “Civil servants and managers alike justify themselves and their claims to authority, power and money by invoking their own competence as scientific managers of social change…such expertise…has two sides to it: there is the aspiration to value neutrality and the claim to manipulative power.” These two characteristics culminate, MacIntyre argues, in a pursuit of—and claim to—a pseudo-scientific efficiency, a mastering of social organization.

This pursuit of the mastery of social organization was enabled by a wider cultural interest in mass society. The rise of the manager coincides, of necessity, with the emergence of what might be termed mass sociology, often with some ideological end in mind. Britain experienced this trend starting in the 1930s with the socialist-run set of studies known as Mass Observation. The British government itself ramped up the observation of its own people during World War II, and did not relax its observation after the war had been won. Corporations too became interested in observing groups, both within and without, with an eye toward operational efficiency. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Dougal Douglas justifies his frequent absenteeism from work by claiming to be doing sociological surveys of the area, in order to better organize his firm’s workforce; the outward expression of mass sociology came through the rise of advertising and its emphasis on focus groups.

The Circus, of course, is a den of civil servants, but one run largely like a corporation. Control aims always to maintain, well, control (yes, it’s all there in his name), and does not shy away from undermining his subordinates and pitting them against each other. His actual view of those under his command becomes clear when Smiley discovers his organizational system: each of the suspected moles has had his picture taped to a corresponding chess piece. Like a grandmaster, Control aspires to see the whole board, and moves his pawns accordingly, unafraid to sacrifice them as needed.

As troubling as Control’s actions are, through a strange irony le Carré’s best work comes when he operates in a similar fashion. His finest books subordinate the personal lives of characters in favor of a bird’s eye view of the mechanistic turnings of spycraft itself: You don’t read them for emotional catharis, but for intellectual stimulation. Other adaptations of le Carré works, though usually pleasurable enough, tend to falter in this regard. Take two other recent films based on his work. Our Kind of Traitor, though it contains a lot of great scenes—especially any featuring Stellan Skarsgård chewing scenery as a Russian turncoat—gets bogged down in its attention to the personal lives of the two main characters, an English couple who get swept up into the world of espionage by mistake. 2014’s A Most Wanted Man does better, anchored by a tough, cynical performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final starring roles, but it too loses sight of its nuts and bolts at times, allowing the emotional stakes to drown out the technique.

Rebecca West once described Imagist poetry as, “Poetry burned to the bone.” The genius of Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that it is le Carré burned to the bone. In a masterful work of adaptation, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan boil every aspect of the novel down to its essence. Though the leisurely 1979 miniseries adapts the minute details more faithfully, the 2011 film remains truer to the book’s essence, capturing its propulsive energy and its ruthless, rational march toward the truth.

Aside from cutting enough plot twists to fit the narrative into a two-hour runtime, O’Connor and Straughan accomplish two major feats in their script. First, they untie the knotty structure of the novel and present things linearly, with flashbacks added only as necessary. Though this might strike some as inelegant, it works well in context. Combined with director Alfredson’s tendency to eschew transitions and move between scenes abruptly—aided by tight work from editor Dino Jonsāter—this linear plotting gives the whole film a feeling of inevitable unwinding, like a giant Rube Goldberg machine. Second, O’Connor and Straughan excise as much personal backstory as possible. Emotional attachments, like scalper Ricki Tarr’s (Tom Hardy) to a potential double agent, or Smiley’s to his wayward wife Ann, appear only obliquely, marshalled into the service of the plot, their emotional depths unplumbed.

To this structural efficiency, Alfredson and his collaborators add layers of complexity that develop the film’s sense of managerial control. Naturally, for a spy tale, observation plays a key role in the story, and Alfredson embeds it into the structure of the film itself, playing up the surveillance aspects of observation favored by managers like Control. High-angle shots are the bread and butter of surveillance cinema, and Alfredson uses plenty throughout, but he also utilizes other interesting shots to create an oppressive atmosphere of observation.

Dollhouse shots occur in several key scenes, most pointedly when Smiley’s sidekick Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) must clandestinely remove a key document from the archival stacks at the Circus. Whereas a director like Wes Anderson loves dollhouse shots for the variety they make possible—they are an economical way to establish individual characterization—Alfredson uses his to emphasize sameness, and the feeling of being watched. As Guillam goes about his business, the camera takes in multiple levels of the circus, all drably similar, and the viewer feels a sense of power, taking in everything at once, as if watching the cornucopia of screens in a security guard’s office. Repeatedly Alfredson draws attention to the act of observation by putting obstructions between the viewer and the scene; a special favorite is filming through windows, their frames drawing the viewer’s attention to the act of seeing, while simultaneously disguising the content of the conversations on screen.

Such imbalance of power feeds the managerial mindset; to observe while evading observation is key to the art of social control. Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema highlight these imbalances by strictly controlling what can be seen on screen. The whole film feels drained of color—appropriate enough for the drudgeries of Cold War intelligence work—and Hoytema has a tendency to under-light scenes, so that objects or characters become difficult to see. In addition, at crucial points he shifts the focus of the camera to obscure characters. This happens most notably in an early scene where Control, on his way out the door, informs his inner circle that Smiley will be leaving with him. As Control reveals his news, the camera refocuses so that he becomes blurred, in the process catching Smiley’s resigned surprise. Control remains in control, and in such a way that his own coercive habits become obscured.

Closed environments work wonders for social control, not least because once the work has been put in to set them up, they influence the lives of their inhabitants invisibly. The Circus, as envisioned by the film, subtly directs its employees toward no-nonsense efficiency. Everything in the building feels sterile, but strangely open—more like a warehouse than a typical office building. Clocks abound, keeping Circus workers mindful of the importance of staying on task; Alfredson infuses the whole film with a similar time-consciousness, sticking the sound of chiming and ticking clocks into the background of numerous scenes. Even Control’s meeting room screams order and sterility, its honeycomb walls speaking to his love of sameness and organization. The whole building would not feel out of place across enemy lines; indeed, there’s something distinctly Soviet in the disinfected atmosphere of the Circus.

Ultimately, though, it is Oldman who brings home this sense of order and control. He’s not, perhaps, the definitive Smiley—Alec Guinness will forever own the role thanks to his work in the Tinker miniseries and its sequels (he’s so good that the mere act of removing his glasses comes as a revelation)—but Oldman is superlative in his own right as the embodiment of the company man. Oldman gives a bravura turn in a challenging role; Smiley says little, and emotes even less, so that Oldman’s modulations come on the edges, in the smallest movements. Smiley is a tidy man, used to cleaning up the messes of others, but his neatness belies the turmoil under the surface: his serially-unfaithful wife has left for good, he has lost the solace of his work, and the boss he thought valued him unquestioningly has shown his true colors. Still, he soldiers on, the stiffest of upper lips never quivering.

Smiley has been hardened by a lifetime of work in the Circus, but everyone at the Circus seems strained by the demand to subordinate life to work. Whether it’s Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), who has given her all to succeed in a man’s world only to be shoved aside, or the nervous Hungarian defector Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), who plays all sides simultaneously, or the bitter Prideaux, whose very existence gets covered up after his failed mission—everyone bears the marks of suppression. For the entire film Alfredson keeps these straining emotions tamped down, only to allow them to explode during Tinker’s remarkable closing montage. Set to Julio Iglesias’ jaunty version of “La Mer,” a marked change from the detached, minimalist jazz score provided by Alberto Iglesias for the rest of the film, the montage shows various characters grappling with the after effects of life in the Circus, finally freed from the need for self-control.


To this point, the picture I have painted of life in the Circus—and, by implication, in any work environment subject to post-war theories of management—probably appears quite negative. Why, then, would anyone work there by choice? There’s the possibility of ideology and patriotism, but le Carré always quickly dismisses this—the only ideologs in his books are Communists, whether naïve British citizens, or true believing Soviet agents. Recalling MacIntyre, one of the aspirational virtues of the new manager is value neutrality; what matters is not ethics, but results. Alfredson picks up on this strain in le Carré. Though Tinker recalls in many ways the greatest film about observation, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, it completely sidesteps that film’s tortured consideration of the ethics of spying on others. In le Carré’s world, morality holds little water next to the need to get the job done.

Therein, strangely, lies the secret of the appeal of Circus life for someone like Smiley. He’s good at his job, and it requires little of him in the way of reflection. He gets results, and receives praise accordingly. To its great credit Alfredson’s film does not dismiss this viewpoint; Smiley does not become an object of pity or derision. Rather the viewer enters into his mindset as the film patiently reveals his process. It’s notoriously hard to make investigative work pop on screen—it’s the curse of every film about journalism—but Tinker establishes a fine rhythm for Smiley’s work. He’s careful, patient, and thorough, yet somehow watching him in action feels exhilarating. At one point he stays up all night to pursue a lead, and in the moment it makes perfect sense: this is work that not only has a purpose, but gives a purpose to the one who does it.

At the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley inherits the place left vacant by Control’s death. He becomes the manager, the master of social organization. Will his ascension mark a positive change, or will he succumb to the temptations that felled his predecessor? There’s reason to hope for the best, as earlier in the film Smiley has opened up to Guillam about his own failings, making himself vulnerable in a way that Control never would have, but the future remains uncertain. Though Smiley’s story continues in subsequent le Carré novels, the film ends ambiguously, on a shot of Smiley sitting in Control’s old chair, his mission accomplished, the hint of a smile crossing his face.

On the surface the world of the Circus appears quaint—people fighting a long-gone battle through long discarded techniques. But though the top-down techniques favored by Control have lost favor to a more relaxed managerial style, the deep structures of new corporatism remain in place. More than ever, companies aspire to pseudo-scientific mastery of social organization, and claim expertise and efficiency as the marks of good business. And still the lure of this work lingers; though coding has replaced codes, the promise of a job done definitively keeps us working. The characters have changed, the atmosphere become more outwardly pleasant, but the spirit of the Circus lives on.