not in our stars, but in ourselves
“Shh! This is spy stuff!”
– John le Carré or Chico Marx, I can never remember who
Someday I’ll regret admitting to this, but here it is: I often forget that John le Carré, master of the Cold War espionage novel, is still alive and kicking. As the Cold War waned, le Carré understandably moved onto other sources of international intrigue: for his 1993 novel, The Night Manager, he focused on the dreadful power of the billionaire class to fund and fuel conflicts in the developing world. Since 1993, of course, such practices have grown only more egregious, and so it’s easy to understand why the BBC would want to adapt the novel as a six-part miniseries, updated a bit and rooted initially in 2011’s Arab Spring. It’s less easy to understand how le Carré’s nuanced pessimism (or pessimistic nuance) could have been translated into the Manichean melodrama we have here. It’s not all bad; parts of it are quite good, in fact; but it’s not what we all would have hoped for.
In Cairo, as the Arab Spring is coming to a full boil, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) works as the night manager at the luxurious Nefertiti Hotel. Even though the hotel is well guarded against the teeming masses, rebelling in the streets, things are tense: all these rich and mighty guests are rather trapped. Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika) is the mistress of Freddie Hamid (David Avery), and she’s concerned about what he’s up to: the scion of Cairo’s most powerful family is making lucrative deals with a billionaire, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), to provide the Egyptian Army with horrifically powerful weapons to control the dissent. Sophie takes Jonathan into her confidence, and urges him to tell his U.K. acquaintances what she knows. From there, Jonathan is thrown into Roper’s world: over the years, he gains Roper’s trust, falls in love with Roper’s mistress, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), gains a few new identities, and sees the weapons Roper sells in action. As Jonathan goes deep undercover in Roper’s inner circle, he’s (somewhat) guided by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), a pit bull of an international espionage agent working in London. Essentially, everything ends as close to happily as it could – but there are piles and piles of dead bodies by the time all’s said and done.
Let’s talk about what The Night Manager does well. It’s directed by Susanne Bier, whom I knew from In a Better World (or, as it’s much more appropriately and evocatively known in Danish, Hævnen, or The Revenge). She’s a smart, sensitive director – one who, thank the lord, isn’t above letting the camera linger on Hiddleston’s beautiful, beautiful body. The performances are terrific: Hiddles is trying out for James Bond here, and he would clearly be a great choice. (My first choice is Idris Elba, and my second choice is Gillian “Jane Bond” Anderson, but I wouldn’t be mad about Hiddles.) Laurie gets to chew quite a lot of scenery as Roper, and Tom Hollander is an effectively bitter little queen within the Roper organization. Colman is a force of nature: smart, diligent, protective, and – above all else – furious. She, more than anyone else, conveys the righteous anger that anyone with a conscience would feel upon realizing that the organization for which she’d given her entire life, in whose essential goodness and rightness she believed, was colluding with an international arms dealer. What do you do when you discover indisputable proof that nearly everyone around you is heavily involved in the Deep State? If you’re Angela Burr, you never, never, never give up.
That’s part of the problem, though. I haven’t read the novel of The Night Manager, so I don’t know how it handles these issues, but I find it hard to believe that le Carré would have been so optimistic about the ability of a few good men and women against the insidious cruelty of The Powers That Be. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for instance, it’s not so much George Smiley’s goodness and intelligence that makes him the chief of the Circus: it’s more that the extensive corruption within that Circus, paired with Smiley’s quiet allegiance to the Crown, weeds everyone else out. Here, in The Night Manager, the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and the good guys get roughed up, at worst. Somehow.
I don’t mean to disparage the miniseries as much as it seems I do, because it is six hours of fun, splashy, pretty entertainment. Nevertheless, the ideological underpinnings of a show about international arms smuggling do matter. It’s one thing to imply, or to state outright, that the most powerful governments in the world are not only aware of private individuals profiting from millions of people’s misery, but actively participating in it and profiting from it themselves. That’s all but indisputable fact at this point in world history. But to imply that the will and power and goodness of individual agents within those governments and/or acting on behalf of those governments is somehow enough to get rid of all the bad guys – well, that’s patently stupid. I don’t want to spoil the entire miniseries, but it essentially ends by asking the viewer to join the good guys in cheering for extrajudicial torture and murder. Because, you see, governments have utterly failed – so these few rogue agents have had to rely on local gangsters to dispense justice. Sure. Makes perfect sense. Sounds like a great New World Order.
Maybe I’m too focused on current political events in this stupid country to be able to enjoy any “art” about the Deep State. (No, I won’t stop using that term. Come at me, NSA. I’m essentially worthless.) Still – The Night Manager, as fun and pretty and Bond-like as it is – left a weird taste in my mouth. I have no idea what the U.S. or U.K. are doing in the way of espionage these days, but the idea of a lone double agent, deeply embedded within a shady organization, seems to belong to an old world. Now, the real enemies are either publishing their intentions on social media; or they’re so successfully embedded in their host government that the government can’t remove them, for fear of bleeding out. That’s the world we live in; invoking the Arab Spring but ignoring its real world implications feels a bit like a spit in the face.