Nearly 40 years ago, the literary creations of two former British spies collectively spawned the movies’ modern secret agent–a character born, not surprisingly, with a split identity. Granted, there was never much commercial equivalence between Ian Fleming’s James Bond, an earnings dynamo with few equals, and the various, less-glamorous operatives imagined by the pseudonymous John le Carr&233;. (The first le Carr&233;-derived movie, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, appeared in 1965 in the wake of the third Bond movie.) But, iconically, the fantastical Fleming spy and the more grimly realistic le Carr&233; type were well-suited to a time that itself seemed split, tossing between angst and abandon, signified equally by Beatlemania and the Berlin Wall.
Curiously enough, given their long, parallel-but-never-quite-meeting histories, John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama represents a slight but notable bridging of these two cloak-and-dagger traditions. The latest of many le Carr&233; novels adapted to the screen, it stars the current actor to topline the ongoing 007 series, Pierce Brosnan, who here plays a sort of Bond-gone-bad, a spy who should definitely have stayed out in the cold.
Not having read the source novel, I have no idea if the Bond associations were part of le Carr&233;’s intent, but in the movie they’re not solely a product of the casting. Andy Osnard (Brosnan) is an agent who keeps getting bounced from assignments due to his womanizing. Posted to Panama, he sets out, first, to find someone in the country’s small colony of Brits who can fill him in on the local dirt. Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush)–a tailor with a past he’s trying to hide and with a wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) whose job gives her access to the top levels of Panamanian government–is the logical choice. Harry falls for Osnard’s manipulations, in part, it seems, because family life in the monotonous port has left him thirsty for some excitement. However, when the men find evidence indicating a Panamanian scheme to auction the Canal to hostile foreign powers, the excitement that ensues isn’t of a patriotic nature. In battle as in the bedroom, Osnard is intent on looking out for number one, and the tailor has no choice but to follow the pattern he’s handed.
The Tailor of Panama makes a game effort to seem up-to-the-minute. It references the drug trade, the U.S. invasion of Panama, the overthrow of Manuel Noriega, and, especially, the 1999 handover of the Canal to the Panamanians–the event that gives the tale its premise of geopolitical danger and havoc. But none of this topical glazing makes Boorman’s movie feel like anything other than the very old slice of espionage cake it essentially is. Perhaps it will find a small corps of admirers among le Carr&233; fans and spy-movie diehards. But I doubt that even most people who like this venerable genre–as I often have in the past–will much like this example of it. And non-fans won’t go near it.
It’s a good question, though, what dooms Tailor to a kind of phantom half-life among current movies. Have spy films of its sort finally reached a senescence, or obsolescence, that’s too advanced to be reversed? Or is this just a half-good film in a genre that could live a lot longer if infused with a bit of excellence and innovation?
Before venturing an answer, it’s worth wondering whether le Carr&233;’s type of spy had his big-screen chances crimped from the outset by Agent 007. Le Carr&233;’s detailed, grimly realistic tales, after all, exuded the fumes of existentialism and angsty Cold War soul-searching. It’s ideal stuff for a novel or even a ’50s film noir, perhaps, but less so for movies in the ’60s, when the world went pop and Mr. Bond’s splashy Technicolor fantasies of lethal power and hedonistic abandon played to universal cravings. As it happened, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was arguably the best movie ever done by le Carr&233;, whose style of fiction proved far more successful on the small screen, in the acclaimed British mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.
Why the difference between the two media? Half the answer, almost certainly, lies in television’s general superiority at putting across the small things: the textured details of personality, protocol and procedure that are le Carr&233;’s strong suits. But the other part of the answer is that, thanks to what Ian Fleming wrought, spy movies made for the big screen long ago lost the ability to survive on character, atmospherics and realistic depictions of political intrigue. According to the thinking of most producers, and they may well be right, the public expects certain things when it thinks “spy movie”– exotic locales, high stakes, heart-racing action and major mayhem, flesh and fantasy. In short: Bond, James Bond.
This, in large part, is what undermines The Tailor of Panama. You can’t say that Boorman, who has a vigorous visual sense and a proven way with exotic settings (The Emerald Forest, Beyond Rangoon), didn’t put a lot of energy into giving the film fluidity, flavor or a modicum of visceral kick. In fact, he not only gives us the latest Bond in the Bond-like lead role, he also allows Brosnan’s character plenty of Bondian savoir-faire and seductive insouciance. Yet all this simply leaves the film feeling like an unsuccessful hybrid: It either has too much flash or not enough of it, depending on your tastes. I kept wondering what it would be like if it had been done as a British mini-series, stripped of every pretense of trying to serve up 007-style glamour and pyrotechnics.
Perhaps a TV Tailor would have shed some of the creaky Cold War assumptions of the movie, which has no prominent Panamanian characters apart from one dissolute politico played by Brendan Gleason, whose egregious miscasting seems like an unintended cultural insult. In a more positive vein, a video version might also concentrate more closely on Harry Pendel, who is not only a fascinating creation but also the occasion for another exacting, meticulous performance by Geoffrey Rush. Indeed, both the character and the actor are so compelling, in an entirely real-world sense, that they seem to belong to another movie–one that has never heard of a certain secret agent who long ago remade the spy movie in his own image.
After years spent trying to draw attention to the distinctive merits of North Carolina independent filmmaking, I perhaps risk seeming disloyal in registering doubts about David Gordon Green’s widely praised George Washington, a worthy showcase for the excellent programs at the N.C. School of the Arts School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem. But only part of my doubts have to do with Green’s lyrical low-budget drama. The other portion concerns the extravagance and tenor of the honors this modest first effort has received at the national level. These are too numerous to list, but they include a slot in the 2000 New York Film Festival and the New York Film Critics’ Circle’s award for Best First Film.
To be sure, George Washington has its virtues, and some are as pleasing as they are impressive in a film from a 25-year-old first-timer. If I’d encountered it as a judge at a film festival, I’m sure I would have urged recognition for some of its elements, especially the performances Green gets from the young black performers in his cast (the older actors are not nearly so convincing, perhaps because they’re trying to be actors). Additionally, shooting the film in old-style CinemaScope was an inspired stroke, and Green and cinematographer Tim Orr achieve an entrancing visual mood in their languorous compositions and soft, warm colors.
Yet the movie hardly transcends the level of a promising student film, in part because of a signal weakness: Its script is a ragged hodge-podge of ill-connecting ideas and attitudes, riddled with dialogue that veers crazily between “poetic” and just-plain-laughable. Such, no doubt, are two prime advantages of indie/student moviemaking: You can go before the cameras with an unkempt screenplay that no commercial producer would OK–then you can “fix” the resulting incoherence with some creative editing and the liberal use of dreamy voice-over narration to bind up the scattered plot strands. All of this, though, is a demonstration less of sure film craft and vision than of the occasional felicities of amateurship.
So why all the wild praise for Green’s creation? There is not one reason, I think, but several, in addition to the virtues noted above. One: Critics are now so overwhelmed with cinematic slickness that a bit of genial semi-competence can seem to connote sincerity. Two: The film proffers a funky vision of the South that accords with the romantic/condescending images held especially by non-Southerners. There are no malls, neon 7-Elevens or flashing interstates in Green’s viewfinder, only crumbling, kudzu-infested urban ruins. Three: The film’s use of race is just as sentimental, and perhaps even more deceptive. The main thing about Green’s black kids is that they are so wholly removed from contemporary black culture; their world contains no rap, no hip-hop clothes or iconography, current slang, etc. Indeed, with their Davy Crockett caps and innocent concerns, these charming young’uns seem for all the world like yesteryear’s suburban white kids simply turned black and put in a movie.
In short, Green has fashioned a kind of art-film utopia that appeals to critics on two levels: The movie looks and moves like a lot of art films of 30 years ago (think Badlands or Two Lane Blacktop); and the world it conjures gives us the present re-envisioned as things were three or four decades back, minus modern cities, foul-mouthed orange-haired kids and the corrosive ugliness of current pop culture. It says something about the decrepitude or desperation of today’s art-film culture, I think, that such fanciful nostalgia could be mistaken for art’s clear-eyed engagement with the real.