Taking John Le Carre’s post-Cold War novel and adapting it — with the help of co-writers Le Carre and Andrew Davies — was in itself a masterstroke. The concept is not dissimilar to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, which was filmed by Carol Reed in 1960. Indeed, the plots are often nearly interchangeable. The impoverished vacuum cleaner salesman pressed into service as a spy is merely replaced with an impoverished tailor. But much has changed in the intervening years: The world has become more corrupt and cynical. Noel Coward’s bumbling secret service operative who stupidly recruited Alec Guinness’s vacuum cleaner salesman has now become a smary, sex-obsessed secret agent (Pierce Brosnan) who doesn’t care if the results of a spying mission are faked, while his protege (Geoffery Rush) is a fraud from the onset — an ex-con masquerading as a posh tailor, who needs money to recover his wife’s inheritance (which he invested badly without telling her). Moreover, the absence of easily identified villains in a post-Soviet world has caused a bizarre need to create bad guys where none exist. This is the central point of The Tailor of Panama — a work utterly brimming with unraveling levels of lies and deceits.
The “art” of spying has been reduced to a farcical game — yet a very dangerous one — where people get killed and wars can be started on the strength of fabrications and the need of elaborate espionage and military networks to justify their existences. Early in the film, Harry Pendel (Rush) refers to Panama as “Casablanca without heroes,” and the film — which later bitterly references that film’s last line (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship)” — is at pains to demonstrate this. Everyone is corrupt. Everyone has his price. And everything is built upon betrayals of one kind or another. It isn’t for nothing that Harry’s mentor, the late Uncle Benny, whom he’s transformed into a non-existent Saville Row tailor, was in reality a small-time crook who set Harry up in Panama as a gesture of thanks for burning down a warehouse for him and taking the rap. The central irony is that the mythical version of this character is seen as Harry’s moral center!
The casting of Pierce Brosnan — that must have horrified the producers of the James Bond movies, since Brosnan was still Bond at the time — as the utterly amoral spy, Andy Osnard, is nothing short of subversive genius. Brosnan, in the performance of his career, tears into the role full-bore, laying bare the already dubious myth of 007 in the process. A libido-driven secret agent, getting long in the tooth, out for himself, using the same tired pick-up lines on anyone he meets, cheerfully blackmailing anyone who suits his purpose, with a passion for pornography and a peculiar familiarity with gay bars is about as far from James Bond as you can get … or is it? This is just one of the areas that The Tailor of Panama explores in its viciously funny, perceptive, and bitter assessment of modern-day government intrigue. It isn’t a very comfortable film, but it’s a brilliant one from a master filmmaker.