Stever Berg of the The Star Tribune looks at the fictional experiences of George Smiley can be seen to represent the real hardships faced by Americans of late middle age:
‘As Oscar Sunday arrives, 13 million Americans find themselves officially without jobs and millions more have given up looking. A good many are in their 50s and 60s, put out to pasture a bit early, perhaps, because they couldn’t get the hang of a new technology, couldn’t adapt to “innovations” in marketing, didn’t see, until it was too late, an infiltration of sharper, cheaper, nakedly ambitious younger people who spoke a mysterious language (clouds, portals, platforms?) and left them behind.
Those left behind are now my people. Not in the sense that I consider myself unemployed or discarded, but we have a certain gray-haired kinship. Our lives have become, shall we say, flexible enough that on a weekday afternoon we can pad quietly into a movie house and discover — or in my case, rediscover — an unlikely hero: George Smiley.
Smiley is, of course, the aging, unglamorous and quietly brilliant British spymaster called out of forced retirement to rescue his old agency from unparalleled disaster and, eventually, to score the Cold War’s biggest intelligence catch.
Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley in last year’s remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” earned him an Oscar nomination. But Oldman’s performance is less remarkable than Smiley’s endurance as a timely and relevant character.
First appearing in 1961, Smiley didn’t achieve literary stardom until John le Carré made him the centerpiece of a masterful trilogy of spook novels in the 1970s, beginning with “Tinker, Tailor.” Alec Guinness was so good in the BBC’s adaptation in 1979 and in the 1981 sequel, “Smiley’s People,” that he, in essence, became Smiley.
And now, two decades after the Cold War’s end, Smiley, in his fastidious, understated way, opens a delicious fantasy to anyone who has been put on the shelf.
His old firm — he calls it the Circus — has fallen apart, realizing, belatedly, that it can’t get along without him. So, he’s called back to unmask a traitor and put the pieces back together.
Smiley is no James Bond. Le Carré describes him as plump with short arms and thick glasses.
Through those lenses, which he often wipes on the back of his necktie, his eyes can penetrate the dense fog of espionage, but they are remarkably unfocused in his own personal life. “Poor George,” his philandering wife tells him. “Life is such a puzzle to you, isn’t it?”
Indeed, Smiley is a reluctant hero. At the tense conclusion of the trilogy, Smiley stands in darkness at the foot of a bridge in West Berlin but can’t bear even to watch the unfolding of his greatest triumph. “George, you’ve won!’ his sidekick, Peter Guillam, tells him. “Yes,” Smiley replies. “I suppose I have.”
The bittersweetness of Smiley’s victory matches whatever pleasure my unemployed friends might take in returning triumphantly to their jobs. Because they know, deep down, that the pieces can never really be put back the way they were.
What do you do when quite suddenly you no longer have a mission? Smiley’s great triumph portends the crumbling of not only Moscow’s spy apparatus but of the Soviet empire. And his coup, although impressive, doesn’t change the harsh reality that Britain has been reduced to the status of lapdog to the American “cousins” […].’
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