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The Tailor of Panama

The Tailor of Panama
Columbia TriStar
2001 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 109m.
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, Leonor Varela, Brendan Gleeson, Harold Pinter, Catherine McCormack
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Production Designer Derek Wallace
Film Editor Ron Davis
Original Music Shaun Davey
Writing credits Andrew Davies, John Le Carré John Boorman from the novel by John Le Carré
Produced by John Boorman, John Le Carré
Directed by John Boorman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The quieter spy & intrigue fiction by greats like Graham Greene rarely seemed to be translated to film in anything like a faithful version; once the 'business as usual' ordinariness of his brand of storytelling was jettisoned in favor of action, romance, and glossy trimmings, not much seemed left of the originals. Carol Reed's 1959 Our Man in Havana is far from a perfect Greene adaptation but it retains a lot of the book's feeling. In it Alec Guinness portrays a lowly vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-Castro Cuba who is recruited by a gung-ho English intelligence operative (Nöel Coward) to join a band of spies. To please his bosses, who are expecting amazing results, and to send his sheltered daughter to a swanky country club, Guinness invents phony data and the plot goes crazy. Our Man in Havana never got a real handle on whether it was sincere or satirical, but it's an amazing movie for its time, with a sober look at Battista oppression. It had a sense of English expatriates culturally abandoned in another land, overwhelmed by forces they don't really understand.

John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama might just as well be decribed as a clever reworking of Our Man in Havana for 2001. It has problems of its own but is blessed with the saving grace of actually telling a story first and worrying about being a blockbuster hit later. Its story is credible, its picture of a foreign capitol twisted by foreign concerns is refreshingly accurate, and its depiction of Latin American realities is one of the best in films.


Loose cannon British intelligence operative Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) is exiled to Panama to ferret out possible threats to the canal. He blackmails tailor Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush) into using his client list to get news about revolutionaries. The cautionings of the stuffy local British mean nothing because Osnard's superiors are eager for any news they can give to the Americans as a pretext for seizing back the canal; Pendel's inventions and Osnard's recklessness soon cause enormous repercussions.

Intelligent and witty, The Tailor of Panama probably hit ordinary audiences like a big question mark. It deals with real politics and situations, not the abstract simplifications we're used to being sold in commercial entertainment. It's also rather left wing in its assessment of the Panama Canal situation, a sore point with millions of Americans who disagreed with our ceding it to the Panamanian government several years ago. Savant has no problem with the movie politically; it's the first non-documentary film I've seen that places the US invasion of Panama in context, actually showing pictures of an entire neighborhood destroyed, burned to the ground, where innumerable Panamanian civilians were killed.

On the other hand, the depiction of the American intelligence men and their Army cohorts seems far too cartoonish and exaggerated (I hope). It seems unfair to assume that our protectors are the mindless zealots and fanatics pictured here.

The image presented of a modern Latin American country, with its contrast of poverty and wealth, and its power concentrated in a few ruling families, is all too accurate. Pendel's closest associates seem to have been victims of right-wing dictatorships, with Marta (Leonor Varela) scarred by acid and once-notable provocateur Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson) reduced to a neurotic drunk. The recreations of street life are notably without preaching or social commentary. One of the best details is the song Abraxas sings, a typically lyrical political protest song remindful of Chilean music I heard in the late '70s.


Beautifully shot and directed, and with sharp performances from its leads (and a lively Jamie Lee Curtis in support as Pendel's wife), The Tailor of Panama eventually paints itself into the same corner, entertainment-wise, that did Our Man in Havana. Is it a satire, or a straight story? Brosnan's smarmy & arrogant Osnard is too venal to be at all charming; in this realistic context, we wish he'd just eat some bad seafood and die so that everyone around him would suffer less. Osnard of course remains the thoroughly loathesome freebooter that he is. The movie's only satirical targets are the British and American comic morons who believe anything Osnard says ... as the movie implies, because he's telling them what they want to hear. Also, although Pendel makes a fine central character, the ending where he happily rejoins his family seems totally beside the point, considering the suffering his folly has caused.

Castro's takeover made Our Man in Havana's critique of Battista Cuba obsolete, and the film (a beautiful-looking 'Scope B&W show, by the way) hasn't been shown much since. The Tailor of Panama may follow the same path to obscurity. Its tempered questioning of First World/Third World values is likely to be considered irrelevant in a 'forever changed' nation that no longer wants to even pretend it cares about the problems of anyone else.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Tailor of Panama is as visually and aurally pristine as almost all DVDs of big new pictures. There is a director's commentary by the usually outspoken John Boorman, who pretty much sticks to the production aspect of the movie, and a way-overlong and obnoxiously cut set of interviews with Rush and Brosnan. These become tiresome very quickly. There's also an alternate ending that I'm glad wasn't used, as it would have negated the film's truthfulness about the Osnard character ... guys like him do tend to dance out of harm's way just as the Dogs of War arrive. The trailers try to make the show look like an action thriller, which must have helped it commit box office suicide. Selling action but delivering intellectual social criticism may have contributed to the negative word of mouth around this rather good movie.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tailor of Panama rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by John Boorman, extended interview with two lead stars, Alternate ending, trailer, filmographies.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: September 16, 2001

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