Increasingly western filmmakers have grown fascinated with technology, science, and the creation of mechanisms used to help us or, in most cases, destroy us. Christopher Nolan’s narratives spend much of their screen time proclaiming schemes and rules that the characters then overcome or abide by. Pixar’s popular films are stories with predictable trajectories, often dabbling in the world of fairytale rules. Most recently, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus used the blockbuster form to explore philosophical concepts concerning creation. In 2011, two movies that couldn’t, on the surface, be further from science fiction were Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While each film twists the classic spy thriller into a unique yarn, they also employ contemporary obsessions with automatons, robotics, and mathematics to reveal the deepest layers of their lead characters’ passion and desires. In the process, a new theory of what makes a spy has been etched out.
In a world where everything can be discovered within seconds, the spy’s place moves further into the crevices of society. A spy must be the most calculated form of a human being (but a human being nonetheless) no matter how much this fact may become a disadvantage. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salender is a robot that desperately wishes she could be a real human. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley is a human who wishes nothing more than to be unable to feel. If a robot was invented that could genuinely conduct spy work, from physical disguise to mental manipulation, then, unquestionably every government in the world would pay top dollar to the inventor. What makes spies such compelling characters, when done right, is the natural battle between robot and human that exists inside his or her souls. Great spy films, such as Polanski’s Chinatown, focus more on what operates inside the minds of their spies rather than the dynamics of the plot they move through.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, perhaps the least heralded masterpiece in recent memory, came along as a confusing adaptation of a previously filmed novel. Seemingly, everybody on Earth knew the superficial elements of the book and saw little purpose in a second movie about it. Audiences wrote the film off before even seeing it, assuming this must be a moneymaking venture with little artistic merit. The attachment of David Fincher to the project was the only redeeming quality. As it turns out, Fincher did indeed have something spectacular up his sleeve. What Fincher brought to the table was a calculated achievement: he focused primarily on the titular character and what makes her tick. Rooney Mara was a risky choice at first, but she now seems like a thread woven so thoroughly into the fabric that the source material almost appears unimaginable without her. Unlike Tinker Tailor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo spawns from a novel made up mostly of plot mechanics and gimmicky characterizations. As a result, Fincher knew that an adaptation that delivered only the plot would fall flat. As many critics have stated, his technical flare has become second nature and, thus, his focus was absorbed totally in Mara. The filmmaker has realized no greater an accomplishment than this character.
If one could actually separate Fincher’s profound vision of Lisbeth from the one in the book, two very different paths would likely be born. Stieg Larsson’s Salander functions like a male talking through a woman while draped in the get-up of a “now” kid. Whether or not this “now” equates to something authentic within Swedish society is hard to say, but the version of the book that unfolds feels more like a put-on than something organic. The 2008 Swedish adaptation falls somewhere in between. Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth is certainly an accomplishment in the art of absorption. She acts like she might “be” Lisbeth and the “lived-in” quality makes the plot flow with a sense of realness that extends well beyond the contrived aspects. However, Rapace’s Salander doesn’t believe that she’s hiding much, and she certainly is not engaged in constant grapple with her inner being. For Fincher and Mara, the exact opposite is at work. The new Salander plays like a vision all it’s own. An authentic expression of human angst developed from within someone who walks and talks like a robot. Mara’s Salander feels like an automaton that wishes she could break free from the python hold that her biological makeup has her wrapped inside. Even her get-up – Mohawk, Tattoo, Goth clothes, and cigarette in hand – are given a more specific place in this version of Lisbeth. What felt like a needless “put-on” by a standard author in the novel, feels now like a costume dawned by a robot hoping to fit in as a unique person. Her outfits are over-the-top, trying far too hard to give off an air of individuality.
This Lisbeth Salander moves like she’s solidified inside a thick callous. Easily this presentation could be forced or over-played. Instead, Mara plays the character with nuance, as though buried deep in the muck of social horrors. Similar to the story of Pinocchio, no amount of fairytale could turn this creation into a real person; her mind has been too warped to ever break free from its tangle. Michael Fassbender’s David in Prometheus exhibits a more obvious example of a robotic creation that wants to be a human and remains at constant odds with his limited ability to feel. Fincher understood that his source material was only a blueprint for the creation of an absorbing character to exist within. As such, the plot of the film, concerning a relatively lazy murder mystery, is just the tip of the iceberg. The inner workings of Lisbeth give us reason to care. She spends the duration of the film unraveling into something closer and closer to a specific being. The fact that she’s hacker who spends her every day breaking into the lives of real human reveals an innate desire to be just like them.
When we first meet her, hidden under her motorcycle helmet and walking in a constant hunch, Lisbeth’s trying to escape inside of her own skin. Only upon meeting Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), is Lisbeth given a reason to believe in her ability to feel true emotion. That this concept is wrapped in the most typical of romantic plot-lines seems like the most perfect way to present the idea of a false human connection. Lisbeth is too difficult a person to penetrate for a more specific dynamic to be built. However, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo doesn’t play like your typical love story in the least. In fact, one will remain skeptical of the authenticity of Lisbeth’s feelings even after realizing that she’s fallen for Mikael. At first, her emotions might seem an overly romantic, even misogynistic direction by screenwriter Steve Zaillian to take an otherwise hardened character. With further thought, Lisbeth’s quick connection to Blumkvist acts as a way to push the conflict that exists within her even deeper. She has no clue how to exhibit the subtlety of human emotion so buying Blumkvist a leather jacket comes off as an aggressive act. Sexually, Lisbeth understands that others will come to her upon her forcefully giving herself over to them. This happens to both women and men. Unfortunately, love doesn’t work the same as sex and only in a computerized, hyper-literal brain would this go unnoticed.
Throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth’s actions are machine-like, underneath a veneer of alternative youth culture. Her emotions are posed as though desperately struggling to come out as something honest. She’s almost physically unbreakable, even by a horrific rape and a brutal beating. Her body is thin, wispy and fragile, yet nothing she experiences can destroy her. With a preternatural talent for computer hacking, Lisbeth was put on the Earth to decode densely encrypted information. Like an internal hard drive she’s destructible only from within. An unsolved mystery of a woman’s death takes only a few months to be cracked when in the hands of such a unique being. Understanding this spiritual purpose, gives extra resonance to Lisbeth’s need to find a real place, not just based on her skills but her tiny concept of feelings. Can someone really have a purpose that makes him or her less than an actual person? Lisbeth’s mind, similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s in Fincher’s preceding film, doesn’t work like everyone else’s and for that reason she has one foot in the real world and one foot far outside of it. How can they ever possibly fit in?
In Tinker Tailor Tailor Spy, George Smiley wishes the opposite of what Lisbeth Salander hopes for. That which makes him human also makes him feel. It’s precisely these feelings that get in the way of his desired success and ultimately leads to his near demise. Tinker Tailor, also an adaptation of a beloved novel that had already been adapted in the past, had a similar set of complications and level of anticipation surrounding it. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the major adjustment made to the previous versions came in the handling of its lead character.
Midway through the film, George Smiley gives a monologue to his most trusted employee – a repressed gay man named Peter Guillam – that reveals not only the basic motivations for the plot, but also Smiley’s own resent for who nature forces him to be. Between a long diatribe about an important meeting in Moscow, Smiley states casually “Things weren’t going well with Ann [his wife].” Inside these words lies a cover up from a man who hates how much he cares about Ann, or any other human for that matter. As the brilliantly conceived monologue unfolds we begin to realize that nothing he talks about – not Karla, not the Moscow center – has as much resonance as Ann. Smiley says that Karla kept “harping on about the damn wife and telling me more about me than…” before stopping himself and stating, “I should’ve walked out.” In that moment, Smiley admits that he should’ve done what any good machine given a bad command would do: re-compute and move on. Instead, Smiley stayed. He finishes by saying that Karla “never said a word, not one word” and that he kept Smiley’s lighter with the engraving: “To George – From Ann. All My Love.” The inscription is the only weakness Smiley’s adversary needed to make his next move. It was every ounce of information necessary to destroy George Smiley, and Smiley never saw it coming. Now, Smiley, with a fresh set of clarity, says, “He’s a fanatic and that’s how I know he can be beaten.” To be a fanatic is to care, and to care is to leave yourself open for defeat.
Smiley, like Salander, dons a version of human clothing – a tweed jacket, slicked back hair, and polished shoes. His cloak of choice is a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, behind which he rests his pensive, meticulously observational gaze. While Salander looks like the alternative youth of contemporary society, Smiley looks like you might imagine a robot to be disguised before taking its first rigid steps into the real world. Replace the fitted suit and glasses with a tight space suit and helmet and you have David from Prometheus, with the dancer-like posture of a mechanical creation. Smiley’s machine-like qualities are not buried beneath the surface. Every move he makes is calculated and practiced. What Gary Oldman brings to his Smiley is a sense of hurt that’s unseen in previous versions of the story. Smiley’s personal life is in shambles and he can’t help but carry that burden everywhere he goes. No amount of practice can lighten the sting of knowing that his wife was not only sleeping with a friend and colleague, but she was sleeping with a Russian spy – literally an enemy of the entire nation he is paid to defend. Smiley can’t help but yearn for a better life, for himself and for humanity at large.
On the surface, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a man’s world. Far beneath London, the “Circus” of British intelligence is a lair filled with smoke and men in suits. The women are secretaries who must endure typical catcalls from their superiors, playing each of them with Mad Men style grins of sexual disdain. Homosexuality has no place in this world as we witness a male relationship, between Peter and his lover, end abruptly when it’s revelation becomes imminent. Yet, amongst all this masculinity, the not so hidden secret is that women rule the day. Ricki Tarr’s story of falling in love while in Hungary throws a wrench in an already extremely dangerous international killing game. The fulcrum shifts the entire narrative; love has no theoretical place in this world, yet the existence of this woman spoils Tarr’s training and his loyalty. That Smiley looks Tarr in the eye and lies about his beloved Irina’s safety is a painful realization that Smiley’s humanity and own hurt for his wife’s discretions are still on his mind. He avoids his feelings when calculated thoughts come into play and he conceals the truth for the betterment of his employer. It kills him inside and we know it. In background of one shot, graffiti on the wall reads: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE, leaving little to the imagination. Men might be the ones making the decisions, but women are on the fast track to their hearts.
Smiley can never get past the embarrassment of seeing his former ally kissing his wife at a Christmas party. He has been double-crossed by his wife and, as he will come to learn later, his associate was using his wife not because he loved her, but as a way of diminishing Smiley as a man. Salt added to already leaky wounds. This associate, Haydon (Colin Firth), knew Smiley so well that he learned his only Achilles heal was his feelings. He successfully exploited the weakness and almost had Smiley removed for good. In the end, as with all spy thrillers, Smiley figures out who the mole inside the Circus is. As Smiley looks at the man who deceived him, he remains calm and repressed. There is no yelling, fighting, or punching. It is just cool, calculated precision. Smiley has a job to do and no matter how human he will always be, he will do that job with meticulous accuracy. When Smiley enters his home late one night, he has the sense that Ricki Tarr lurks in the shadows. How could he know someone is there? Is this human instinct or the psychic ability of a computer chip?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are profound explorations of what goes on inside the minds of spies. The main characters are each calculated individuals, by nature cut off from society. They contain similar needs to fit within the world, while also being able to look in at it from the outside. Lisbeth Salander does not bleed for the state of culture the way George Smiley does. She simply wishes she could be an innocent contributor to that society. Smiley, on the other hand, knows that his fatal flaw is how much he cares about personal experiences. If only Smiley could figure how to truly avoid his feelings, he could be the world’s most successful intelligence agent. If Lisbeth could only learn to feel, perhaps she could finally smile.