The Cold War may be more than a decade behind us, but for author John le Carre the war’s still on. Except for him, the real enemy is the CIA and MI-6. In bestseller after bestseller, Mr. le Carre has consistently given the back of his hand to those two intelligence services. Clearly, he loathes them both with a passion.
As executive producer and co-scenario writer of the film version of his 1996 novel, “The Tailor of Panama,” which opened last weekend across the country, Mr. le Carre outdoes himself in demonstrating his contempt for both services. He shows the Brits to be complete and utter fools when they’re not being outrageously venal and unprincipled. The Americans are hardly any better — they’re right wing and stupid.
To insure that even the dimmest member of his audience won’t miss his point, le Carre has cast Pierce Brosnan, who’s made a career playing Agent 007, the pride and glory of Her Majesty’s Service, as the ultimate of anti-heroes. Posted to Panama as a last chance to salvage his career, Brosnan as Andy Osnard comes across as a slimy, conscienceless womanizer, rotten to his very core. The one-time suave Agent 007 has his dialogue positively peppered with all the standard four-letter words and phrases of the day.
Inspired by Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” (who gets a fleeting thank-you in the last paragraph of the novel), le Carre has Osnard more or less blackmail one Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), an English tailor in Panama City — who has a secret criminal past and is also deeply in debt — to keep him informed on all the power players in town. All these worthy Panamanians are shown as corrupt, amoral and involved in either the drug trade or money laundering or both.
Harry, unfortunately, in addition to being susceptible to blackmail has an active imagination. Where there is no juicy information to give Osnard, Harry simply invents and invents and invents, until Osnard’s superiors — being the gullible fools le Carre makes them out to be — swallow the tale of a “Silent Opposition” to the leaders of post-Noriega Panama and the very real possibility of an impending revolt of “the people.”
Osnard persists in setting up meetings with Harry in colorful spots like the local brothel and the local gay nightclub, lingering over colorful details germane to such establishments as Harry reacts in proper embarrassment to these situations. Although partially shot on location, Panama looks dingy and gray, nothing to lure any tourists.
Osnard’s boss at MI-6 heads for the Pentagon. If there’s to be military action, then it’s up to the Yanks, but the Brits are to get the credit. In a scene that elicited a big burst of hilarity from a large preview audience, an American general in full uniform and medals rises to his feet, tears in his eyes and tremolo in his voice, to declare he oversaw the withdrawal of the last of U.S. forces when the canal was turned over to the Panamanians. He pleads to be put in charge of the bombing raid on the city. Le Carre gets in a few knocks at the earlier President Bush when he headed the CIA.
Meanwhile, as Osnard and his colleagues keep raising the ante for the number of millions of dollars to be brought into Panama — supposedly to buy weapons and richly reward the “conspirators” — the “heroic” leader, an old alcoholic friend of Harry’s, in a final binge of vodka and depression, puts a bullet through his head.
As Harry tries to alert Osnard, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harry’s American wife, an executive working for the only incorruptible man in the Panamanian government, finally figures out what her husband has been up to through most of the film. Her timely intervention gets the American raid called back but not before a few bombs have been dropped on the city
Le Carre manages, clumsily, to twist his novel around so as to have a nominally happy ending. Osnard flies away scot-free to Europe on a private plane with a sack full of millions, having first providentially bought off the British ambassador with $2 million to ensure his getaway. The latter portion of the film leaves any number of plot lines dangling, which certainly aren’t resolved by Harry suddenly confessing his secret past to his wife, and his wife tenderly, briskly, telling Harry to make breakfast for the family. Final image: Harry happily flipping pancakes for wife and kids.
For what it’s worth, one of Harry’s children, his son, is played by Daniel Radcliffe, a lad who we’ll be seeing a lot of this fall as the eponymous “Harry Potter” in the big production film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” He doesn’t get much of a chance to show off his stuff here. We also get playwright Harold Pinter in a fleeting cameo as Harry’s Uncle Benny, who utters a word or two in Yiddish, making the point, I guess, that Harry is Jewish — not that the detail is remotely relevant to the film or novel for that matter.