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The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck
A review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


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The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part—
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.

[Note: The following review contains spoilers.]

Once upon a time, during the Napoleonic wars, two great empires came to death grips at the Battle of the Nile. In an act of heroism, self-sacrifice, and defiance, a lone boy sailor stood his ground on the doomed French flagship, L’Orient. The day went to the British, but the sight of this fearless French lad burned the mind of every witness to his death, his name, Casabianca, immortalized in poem and legend and in the annals of devotion and bravery.

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Centuries later, two empires once again came to death grips, in a shadowy struggle called the Cold War: a very ideologically bitter, bloody, treacherous mess. Today, as we look up from the present crater of confusion, the Cold War appears with almost fairytale-like clarity — East versus West, Good versus Bad, but at the time, the Cold War was for many a morally questionable enterprise, with the will to prevail crumbling on every front.

Tinker, Tailor begins with an agent being sent to bring a Hungarian general over to the British side. The pinch goes wrong, the envoy is wounded and captured, and the Brits’ Eastern European network of agents is rolled up. Inevitably, a bureaucratic price must be paid. The upper echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service — commonly known as MI6 — is fired for incompetence. The top man, known as Control, and his number-two, George Smiley, resign under a cloud. Le Carré has famously nicknamed the whole enterprise “the Circus” for its locale overlooking a roundabout in London — Cambridge Circus — but the nickname also reflects the pompous, supercilious, and curiously cavalier attitude of the administrators running the place.

At about the same time as the Eastern European networks are being blown, a wonderful new font of information coincidentally appears out of the blue for the Circus worthies. Dubbed Witchcraft, it promises to shift the balance of power back to the West, with MI6 holding the weighted pan, leaving the overfed American intelligence complex begging for scraps and the Empire returned to her rightful place in the great game.

Then a young, tough field agent named Ricki Tarr goes missing over a Russian woman and just as suddenly returns with tales of disinformation, moles, and betrayal. The new gang at the Circus rush to cover their asset and reinforce their reliance on the incredible Witchcraft material and its source (Merlin) . . . but nevertheless an investigation at ministerial level is launched. Is it possible that one of the new masters of MI6 is a mole? Retired George Smiley, formerly “Control’s man” at the Circus, is brought back from obscurity to find the weakest link. And thereby hangs the new movie.


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