Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted and darkly stylized, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the latest rendition of John le Carré’s iconic spy thriller, is drawn from real events that shook the British establishment decades ago.
But for two-plus hours, moviegoers — especially those born after the last hammer and sickle flew from the Kremlin in 1991 — might wonder what all the fuss was about.
They’re not alone. Even senior intelligence officials sometimes wonder about the value of the “mole wars” that periodically convulse the spy agencies.
Le Carré’s mole, Bill Haydon, is modeled on Kim Philby, a rising British intelligence official who was headed for a knighthood until he came under suspicion as a Soviet agent in the 1950s.
The elegant Philby had been top dog in a socialist band of brothers at Cambridge University during the 1930s. Like countless others in the West during the Great Depression, he and his comrades embraced the Soviet Union as the world’s only bulwark against fascism’s thundering march. When the KGB came calling, they were eager recruits.
Their elite university pedigree, of course, gave them automatic entry into the military services, Foreign Office and British intelligence beginning in World War II.
After the war, Philby rose to the position of British intelligence’s liaison to the CIA’s top counterspy, James Jesus Angleton, who suspected, but never made a case against, his constant luncheon companion.
By dint of his brilliance and daring alone, Philby was the spy ring’s leader. One of his charges was Guy Burgess, a closeted gay British diplomat whose attention-getting drunken escapades gave Philby fits. Another was Donald Maclean, posted as first secretary of the British Embassy. Warned of the closing net by Philby in 1951, both disappeared, only to surface five years later in Moscow.
Philby’s association with Burgess and Maclean prompted his resignation. Cleared by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, he would elude British mole hunters for another six years. As they closed in, Philby fled Beirut by ship, according to his memoir, eventually surfacing in Moscow as “the third man.” Other reports have him escaping overland via Syria and Iraq.
All of this was such a scandal that British officials couldn’t bear to admit publicly that there was a fourth mole, Anthony Blunt, who had secretly confessed that he had sent thousands of documents to Moscow during the war, including the “Ultra” decryptions of German military traffic.
In 1979, Blunt, the queen’s art curator, was exposed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a Parliament speech, supposedly as a message to the intelligence agencies that she, not them, was in charge.
But there was yet a “fifth man,” it would turn out years later: John Cairncross, an intelligence officer during and after World War II, who allegedly passed nuclear bomb secrets to Moscow. There might have been more.
“He was the fifth only in order of discovery,” said Christopher Andrew, a leading British intelligence historian who wrote a book with Russian defector Oleg Gordievsky called “KGB: The Inside Story.”
How did they all end up?
Cairncross lost his civil service job and went to the United States, where he landed a teaching job at Northwestern University and wrote three books on French literature. Later, while working for the United Nations in Rome, he was confronted by a British journalist and exposed. Eventually he moved to the South of France, where he died from a stroke in 1995 at age 82.
Blunt stopped writing and withdrew from society. In an unpublished manuscript, according to the London Daily Telegraph, he called spying for the Soviets “the biggest mistake of his life.” He died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 75.
The three who escaped to Moscow hardly fared better.
Burgess was granted a state-sponsored lover and continued to order suits from London’s Savile Row. But his drinking did him, according to reports, and he died in 1963 at age 52.
In contrast, Maclean prospered to a degree, immersing himself in Russian life, teaching and writing. Despite speaking out for Russian dissidents, he was bestowed with honors by the Kremlin. After suffering from pneumonia, he died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 69.
The leader of the band, Philby, had expected a war hero’s welcome in Moscow. Instead, he was awarded a modest apartment, which was closely watched, and a few Western amenities. As if to prove he still had the touch for treachery, he bedded Maclean’s wife. In 1988, suffering from loneliness, depression and alcoholism, he died of heart failure at age 76.
Former Washington Post SpyTalk blogger Jeff Stein lives in the District.