Movie review: The Tailor of Panama (2001)

I really want to like John le Carré movies. I found Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy confusing (though the 2011 version is supposed to be one of the best le Carré film adaptations). I did like The Spy That Came In From The Cold and A Most Wanted Man. But The Tailor of Panama….not so much.

The plot wasn’t all that confusing, but I found at one point that I thought I had missed something vital. I had to stop and think through it. And I found the spy in the center of the story, well, revolting.

The ending is different from a “typical” spy story. I wasn’t expecting things to end tidily like they did. Cold War spy stories never do. But then again, this story doesn’t take place during the Cold War.

The Tailor of Panama takes place in 2001, a mere two years after the US handed over the Panama Canal to Panama. A British spy is banished to Panama after some mishap during a previous mission. He ferrets out a British ex-pat who is laying low but has good contacts among the political elites in Panama: a tailor.

The tailor of course is not whom he appears. He has a past. A past that the British spy uses against him. After a stint in prison, the tailor moved to Panama and reinvented himself. He is now a successful, posh tailor for all the elites in Panama. He is married to a woman who works high in the government. Every day he cooks breakfast for their kids and takes them to school. Life is idyllic. Until the British spy enters the picture.

He wants dirt. He wants to know what is going on behind the scenes in Panama and pressures the tailor to introduce him to the political elites that he rubs elbows with in his trade. Nothing really is amiss. Sure, Panamanian society and politics is corrupt. But Noriega has long been removed from power. Nothing is really going on in Panama. At least nothing that other spy organizations know about.

And yet here is this British spy pressuring the tailor to bring him dirt. If he doesn’t, he will reveal the tailor’s past and stop payments that the tailor needs to pay off his debts. What to do? Well, feed him a line: the government is looking for someone to sell the canal to. The British spy is very interested.

He wants this information not so much to get himself out of exile with the British spy agencies but to line his pockets with money so he can disappear into retirement.

Only things take a dramatic turn. This charade—a lie from the tailor to give the spy what he wants and bribery from the spy so he can disappear into a life of comfort—set in motion a US invasion of Panama. The Panama Canal being sold—quite possibly to China—is a security threat that must be stopped.

Suddenly the tailor and his wife through her connections in government are trying to stop everything set in motion. The spy pays off the British ambassador to Panama and leaves the country with millions of dollars. The shady immorality of the spying world is alive and well.

Although made in 2001, the movie had a 1980s or 1990s feel to it for me. It is definitely not a good spy vs. bad spy movie—the so-called good spy is actually a very, very bad spy. Lives and almost an entire country are ruined for profit. Morality is ambiguous or non-existent.

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