The Little Drummer Girl
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Diane Keaton's 66th birthday.
Director: George Roy Hill. Cast: Diane Keaton, Yorgo Voyagis, Klaus Kinski, Sami Frey, Moti Shirin, Eli Danker, Michael Cristofer, David Suchet, Bill Nighy. Screenplay: Loring Mandel (based on the novel by John Le Carré).
Twitter Capsule: Miscast and stylistically flat. Risky theme, dogged oddness fight an uphill battle for hearts and minds.

Photo © 1984 Warner Bros. Pictures
The current film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sets itself up to give me trouble in at least two ways, and further postpones my entry into the Cult of Le Carré. The movie has an all-but-impenetrable plot and, aside from Kathy Burke hanging out with her former director Gary Oldman for a scene or two, it has practically zilch in the way of actressing. The second hurdle is clearly higher for me personally to clear, though at least the film boasts that staggering production design (it's like the Cinecittà of mildewed bureaucracy) and the insinuating, counter-intuitive score by Alberto Iglesias (who had an earlier stab at Le Carré in the more superficially excitable idiom of Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener). The look and sound and occasionally the rhythms of Tinker Tailor not only pull you into the movie, they are in many ways the movie. Evocative, thematically rich style can get you far, and even if I imagine Tinker Tailor is aiming for a more roundly involving experience than I found it to be, it's refreshing to see a director realize that, given the inevitable compressions of Le Carré's byzantine plotting that a two-hour film will require, dialogue and action are not the only tools in the cinema's box for bringing his world of heady, sinister obscurantism to life.

You could not possibly say the same for this miscast, indifferently scored, and visually listless adaptation of Le Carré's novel The Little Drummer Girl, hot off the presses at the time the film premiered in October 1984—one of those release dates that seems to bait Oscar but doesn't seem embarrassing if nobody bites, which nobody did. Some of what goes wrong in Drummer goes wrong so tremendously that one feels ungenerous to even call attention, like jeering at the person who comes in third-to-last in a marathon. Stark criticisms are unavoidable, even as I'm forced to admit that the film is one of those wrongly-assembled movies that is built on such an unusual Hollywood premise, serves up a sufficient handful of locally impressive scenes, and holds fast enough to its own weird discombobulations that it eventually becomes halfway fascinating, almost in spite of its deliriously bad producing choices. So, hold tight for the good news.

First, it's incumbent to report that my heart was correct in sinking pretty much from the moment I saw that George Roy Hill was helming this dizzying, nervy, and somewhat belief-beggaring tale of bomb-plantings and counter-espionage among some Israeli radicals who are sure they are "moderates," some PLO radicals who are sure they are "moderates," and an American-born, UK-based actress who gets recruited into working for one while appearing to work for the other. The thematic weight and narrative density of this tale call for an artist with a little more up his sleeve than the breezy choreographer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the self-effacing midwife of The World According to Garp. Hill won his Oscar for The Sting, a convoluted but likable automaton of criss-crossing duplicities. One imagines he scored the Drummer Girl gig because somebody somewhere thinks all stories involving intricate dissimulation are more or less the same. But The Sting, setting aside its complete lack of edges and stakes, was at least written for the screen, so you not only don't have the trouble of distilling something that's even longer, tougher, and scarier than what has survived in Loring Mandel's screenplay, but you won't have to rely on camera, sound, and montage quite as heavily to suggest unsayable, undemonstrable valences of this novelistic material—nuances that are tough to conjure but nonetheless need to be in place for the story to work. I'm of course not suggesting that all aspects of craft aren't important for vehicles like The Sting, just that they doesn't arrive into an immediate crisis of economy, trying to squeeze what is naturally a miniseries into a 130-minute bloc, such that you really need to maximize all your audiovisual storytelling faculties in order to preserve as much as you can. Hiring Hill to lead this kind of enterprise is like booking a long trip to equatorial Africa and asking an Eskimo to help you pack your bags. The Little Drummer Girl has too little to offer, least of all stylistic interest, to accommodate almost any viewer who isn't already a Le Carré discipline, in which case I imagine this film already feels like a muddied and simplified disappointment.

The only other target demographic for The Little Drummer Girl would be Diane Keaton loyalists, who might at least admire the chutzpah of both the actress and the producers in casting her so against the grain as a radical-leftist, anti-Zionist stage actress who suddenly finds herself recruited as a double-agent for the Israelis against the PLO cells whose political convictions she thinks she endorses. In another instance of myopic recruiting, Keaton's brilliant handling of a politically bold part in Reds might have recommended her as viable casting in this deliciously complex but formidably difficult role. Almost from the get-go, though, Keaton is facing and compounding problems that are tough to overcome. Take for granted that she was not born to play Saint Joan with an English accent in close-up—so "brilliantly," in fact, that a cabal of terrorists decide that she, Diane Keaton, will be able to impersonate a pro-Palestinian die-hard even under force of interrogation. She simply isn't cut from that Vanessa Redgrave bolt of cloth, where transfixing charisma is married to impeccable technique, and political passion dukes it out with a susceptibility to romanticism. (Of course, the mere suggestion that Le Carré's plot could have anything to do with Redgrave, even if it concerns an actress so enflamed about the Palestinian cause that she quickly winds up over her head, is a wild sling of libel, and I'm surprised you would even think of it.)

Keaton can project plenty of intelligence on screen, and too many of her roles, especially recently, mislay their sense of how her daffiness adheres to a sturdy core of smarts. But still the daffiness is there, and the small handful of scenes designed to accommodate it in The Little Drummer Girl (a movie she mostly spends amid nervous waiting and high-strung distress) are dramatically silly and tonally schizophrenic. They make an improbable piece of casting seem even more like an instant albatross around the neck of a film that needs every pressure-release it can find before the whole things sinks into ideological debates and logy machinations among all-but-anonymous characters. Furthermore, one thing Keaton does not easily connote is zealotry—if not necessarily the kind that hand-delivers a suitcase bomb to a septuagenarian professor, then at least the kind that has to convince itself she can handle a task that I never once believed she could handle. I also never believed in any agent, terrorist, patriot, or whatever they want to call themselves who looked at this woman and thought, "She's the one for the job." And add this to the growing list of infelicities: I have done the research and, even allowing handicaps for an unsalvageable period in the history of fashion, Diane Keaton in The Little Drummer Girl sports the very worst hairstyling and the very worst outfits I have ever seen on a major actress in a studio movie. Keaton is constantly walking the sidewalks of London and Munich and Lebanon, trying not to look purposeful and nervous while sporting gargantuan coats that cinch at the waist but still look big enough to conceal an Israeli in one sleeve and a Palestinian in the other. The movie keeps making her look ridiculous doing what she's doing, behaving as she behaves, even wearing what she wears, well beyond the point where it pays dramatic dividends.

The worst side effect of all of this is that the miscasting and misdirection suggest withholdings in the material that it can least afford. After all, thematic gutsiness is the best thing going for an aesthetically weak but topically thorny production like The Little Drummer Girl, where all manner of characters vent all sorts of spleen on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and none are afraid to walk their vehement talk. The way Keaton's Charlie gets mixed up in all this is that she responds quickly and lustfully to an Arabic-looking man in her Saint Joan audience, whom she is convinced was the same man who spoke beneath a ski-mask, at serious risk to himself, at a public lecture she attends and (lamely) disrupts about "the Palestinian problem." Re-encountering this same man while shooting a television ad in Mykonos, Charlie makes everyone's favorite white-Western gaffe of thinking all brown-skinned people look alike, but the film is uncomfortable exploring her racism or her guilty attempts to overcompensate for it by doing things she otherwise wouldn't. Meanwhile, even after she discovers that this man, who calls himself Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis, of Chronicle of the Smoldering Years), is an Israeli freedom fighter who believes exactly what she doesn't, she can't stay focused on their opposed politics because she really wants to sleep with him and obviously harbors intractable fantasies about love with a Mediterranean. This may sound like a cheap double-assault against the character, but as scripted, it suggests a complex sea of unflattering but plausible motives within an otherwise implausible scenario. But as directed, Drummer Girl writes off Charlie's mistake about Joseph's identity as active deception on his part and writes off her exoticizing fantasies as a seed of genuine love, big-string-section love, maybe even mutual love. So, even within a daring story where the lead actress feels incongruous, the movie compounds that problem by refusing to admit any of the unbeautiful psychological turns that might explain Charlie's own reckless complicity, making the character and the performer feel even more cut off from everything they are meant to be embroiled within.

That said—and it's a lot to say against a movie like this—watching The Little Drummer Girl in 2012 still feels like a closer confrontation with dangerous material than watching Tinker Tailor, whose psychological dossiers of blank-faced professional compartmentalizers already feel a bit hoary (nowhere more so than in the transitive properties of spy = counter-spy = gifted at deception = gay). There is even less in The Constant Gardener to make its audience question their assumptions about corporate malfeasance and exploitation of the Third World (you don't say!). By contrast, there are real arguments embedded in The Little Drummer Girl's script about how we define terrorism, about how terrorists justify their strategies, about what kinds of credit we expect for our most ostensibly principled acts, and about how we square our impassioned thoughts with the incubated forms of inaction that most of us take for granted in daily life. Even if there are many points where the filmmaking fails to capitalize on such charge, or actively appears to cool its own embers, a surprising modicum of Hollywood moralism is impressed upon any of these debates. The sea of cross-purposes continue to seem interesting as the film progresses. Even Klaus Kinski plays somebody you can't just classify as a maniac, though someone more intimidating than unnerving, maybe a Klaus Maria Brandauer, might have brought more to that role. Plus, especially if you hang in there through a shaky first hour, The Little Drummer Girl boasts a few sequences that have been executed with admirable tension: a decoy roadblock that culminates in a kidnapping, which makes brief but encouraging use of depth-of-field; a parallel-parking problem that confidently strides the line of farce and terror; a canny introduction of a key character we don't yet recognize, whose defining peccadillo of enjoying loud music clearly means more than we or Charlie take it to mean at first.

This character shares with Keaton's Charlie the center ring of the climactic sequence, which reprises several of the movie's core liabilities (awkward cross-cutting to parallel action, uneven lighting, affronts to behavioral logic) and yet concludes with an insurgent act of violence that is as harrowing to witness as the end of Bonnie and Clyde. The blood this scene produces is insultingly fake, like barely viscous Gatorade, but the potency of the moment is profound, and while you could say that all Keaton has to do is shriek through this episode, it's nonetheless the case that her unique assets as a performer appear at last to serve the movie rather than impeding it, or allowing it to impede her. Momentum is already high following the macabre sequences that precede this one, entailing a simultaneously real and staged delivery of an explosive device and a nifty bit of slow-build plotting around a tape recorder in Charlie's handbag. But what drives home the ending of The Little Drummer Girl, more than the ingenuities of plot or the never-arriving ingenuities of style is Keaton's own imperviousness to abstraction. Yes, many scenes in the film would improve if she seemed constitutionally available to zealotry or remotely seducible by disembodied concepts. (In Reds, she exceled at seeming seducible in this way, sort of, but never mind that.) The thing is, movies about female spies and radicals almost always generate a blurry scrawl of concepts where the character is meant to go, and they almost always cast the kind of actress who, if she's not careful, risks turning herself into a concept. This happened to Meryl Streep in Plenty and to Cate Blanchett twice, in Charlotte Gray and Heaven. Keaton is emphatically a flesh-and-blood woman, and even if she might have probed much further into that woman, to watch a person and not just a plot-construction recoil in terror from the fruit of her own labor is a pretty indelible sight. I wish the script didn't hustle so quickly to translate this trauma into the already-strained metaphor of Charlie's stage career, but even if you have to dismiss the coda to some degree, the best thing that a flawed, self-hobbling, but distinctive mediocrity like The Little Drummer Girl can do for itself is to end on by far its most bracing moment. Grade: C

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