Jul 13, 2010
I’m a sucker for the “wall-crossing” sub-genre of spy stories, and a fan of 80s miniseries, so I was very much looking forward to The Contract, in which a British agent is tasked with contacting an East German missile scientist, convincing him to defect and then escorting him and his daughter across the border. Sadly, despite a game cast and good locations, I ended up a little bit let down. The main problem, I think, is that the story (adapted by Gerald Seymour from his own novel) could have been better told as a two-hour movie, and struggles to sustain the three-hour miniseries format. The result is two languidly paced episodes of build-up that feel padded leading to a gripping finale. The third episode is genuinely exciting spy entertainment (exciting enough to make me rather callously shoo my girlfriend out of the room when she dared to interrupt right at the climactic wall-crossing!), but I’m not sure I would have stuck around for it were I watching this on TV back in the 80s.
Tinker, Tailor alumnus Bernard Hepton (also one of the better Rivals of Sherlock Holmes) and the younger, career-driven “bad cop,” Mawby, played by James Faulkner, the grieving father preparing for a holiday with his daughter, and several other subplots. The hero of the piece only really comes into the picture toward the end of the first episode, when Hepton recruits Johnny Donoghue, a former SAS operative fluent in German now working as a teacher, to be his agent in the field. Kevin McNally (probably most famous for playing Gibbs, Johnny Depp's first mate in the Pirates of the Caribbean films) does the best that he can with a character wrestling with personal demons so overused that they’ve lost all impact. (While stationed in Northern Ireland, he accidentally shot a child because he thought she had a gun.) Other than being driven by what he sees as a shot at redemption, the character remains fairly cryptic–and consequently not that engaging. Luckily, McNally is charismatic enough to get by on that much, and by the third episode he’d won me over. (I couldn’t help aging him fifteen years in my head, though, receding his hairline and picturing him as Gibbs, which is a disruptively incongruous image!)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but they’re not nearly as interesting... until that third episode, that is, when a petty turf war between supposed allies in British and West German intelligence services causes the whole mission to go horribly awry. A subplot involving a young East German border guard who’s gone AWOL in order to escape to the West with his idealistic girlfriend is considerably more compelling and affecting.
A Cold War Spy Collection from Acorn Media (currently a real bargain at half price on Amazon!). The picture is somewhat grainy, thanks to the film stock it was shot on, but the DVD looks surprisingly good for 80s television. The skimpy but nonetheless welcome extras amount to a biography of Seymour and cast filmographies.