“Le Carre’s Panama – the young country of 2.5 million souls which, on December 31, 1999, will gain full control of the Panama Canal – is a Casablanca without heroes, a hotbed of drugs, laundered money and corruption.”
This is how the inside dust jacket of John le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama introduces us to the spy yarn. It’s a seedy world, not meant to titillate so much as to intimidate. A brief history lesson for those who may be unfamiliar with the story of the Canal might be in order. Prior to the completion of the Panama Canal (which opened for business in 1914), any vessel wishing to traverse from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific had to circumnavigate all of South America. The chance to traverse through a canal in Central America held great appeal for obvious reasons. The United States considered a canal route in Nicaragua, but after the French abandoned their efforts in Panama, it was decided to pay $40 million to purchase their leftover work and equipment and pursue the completion of the Panama Canal.
Over the next several decades, tensions mounted as the Panamanians came to see their natural resource – their geography – exploited by the mighty U.S. On 9 January 1964, Martyr’s Day, a riot erupted leaving 20 Panamanians and five U.S. soldiers dead. Tempers flared for another decade before President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty that would hand over control of the Canal to the Panamanians on 31 December, 1999 on the condition that the canal remain neutral and accessible to all vessels.
In the twenty two years between the signing of that treaty and the actual handover, U.S.-Panamanian relations were often terse. In 1981, Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos died in a plane crash and many Panamanians believe it was orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency because he refused to renegotiate the treaty and allow the U.S. to maintain control over the Canal. He was eventually succeeded by the brutal dictator and drug kingpin Manuel Noriega, whose regime ran roughshod over anyone who stood in its way.
CIA complicity in Noriega’s activities only exacerbated Panamanian antipathy toward the United States. President Ronald Reagan pursued sanctions against Noriega, and eventually his successor, George H.W. Bush authorized the largest U.S. military intervention since Vietnam to remove Noriega from power. The mission succeeded, but many were suspicious that the show of force was a symbolic gesture from the U.S. that it would always be looking over Panama’s shoulder and willing to do whatever it thought necessary to protect its own interests.
It is in this world, then, as the date of the hand over approaches that we meet the seemingly hapless Harry Pendel (played in the film by Geoffrey Rush), the titular tailor to the Panamanian elite. Harry is a British ex-pat, striking out on his own away from the successful Saville Row business begun by his father. Harry’s wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) works for the American consulate. Banished there is also disgraced MI-6 operative Andy Oxnard (Pierce Brosnan), looking partly to redeem himself but mostly for an opportunity to finally find the pot at the end of his rainbow.
Andy works out that Harry is not who he seems to be, but is rather a fraud. When pressured by Andy for inside information about what the Panamanian president’s plans are for the Canal, Harry does what he has always done: He spins a yarn, fantastic and elaborate, that quickly gets wholly out of hand. Caught in the runaway mess are Harry’s friends, former Panamanian rebels Marta (Leonor Varela) and Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson). Both survived Noriega’s brutality with barely their lives intact and are wary of any potential threat, foreign or domestic. Marta particularly is put off by Andy’s dubious courtship of Harry. (It doesn’t require a degree in literature to recognize that Marta was likely named by her parents in honor of the Martyr’s Day rebellion, a streak their daughter clearly continued).
Does Andy know that Harry is lying? Does he even care? These are perfectly legitimate questions, and neither the novel nor the film makes it expressly clear when he knew what he knew. The film, perhaps more than the novel, is stocked with characters willing to look the other way and exercise very selective hearing so long as it suits their ambitions. A Casablanca without heroes, indeed!
This is the closest that John le Carre gets to a farce, though the stakes are very real. Every turned page brings Harry’s deck of cards closer to falling, yet he manages to add a new card every time he opens his mouth. Each character’s motivations are easily accessible and understandable; just as Oxnard needs something big to erase the stain of scandal from his reputation, so must Harry keep lying. Both are acutely aware that they’re not considered equals by their peers and are desperate to win the feather in their caps that will square themselves. Marta is defensive, and protective of her friend Harry. And Louisa…she’s largely in the dark, kept there by the demanding nature of her work and the blind eye she turns to Harry’s character flaws.
The film is strikingly faithful to the literary source material, largely because le Carre himself co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Davies and the film’s director, John Boorman. The film eschews the novel’s back story and history of Panama in favor of telling the present day story, but it still succeeds in creating the palpable environment of the Central American country in large part because they shot the film there (those are real prostitutes, Brosnan notes in a DVD interview). We don’t need to know about the tensions between the average Panamanian and their own government, or with the U.S. to understand that these are people who have been preyed upon and exploited for generations. They are both desensitized yet with a quiet rage smoldering under the surface.
Despite the fidelity of the film to the novel, there is one chief difference; literary Louisa is given much more attention than is her cinematic counterpart. We learn of Louisa’s insecurities, how she has carried with her a nagging inferiority after growing up with a more popular, more attractive sister and how she has kept her head down and focused on her work with a sort of tunnel vision. It helps explain how she could remain so oblivious to her husband’s quirks. In the film, we move so quickly from scene to scene – and we’re so enamored of the chemistry between Rush and Brosnan – that we don’t necessary stop to question just how Harry carries on with his shenanigans without so much as raising her eyebrow.
Though the story in either medium carries on with a sense of absurdity, it’s never far from the dark truth of Panama. It is a country whose history has been most unkind to its people, and has all too often been ensnared in the power play of those who do not have its people’s interest at heart. Andy Oxnard is certainly such a person, which is why the casting of the charming Brosnan is quite inspired.
As is often the case with adaptations, there are elements that do not always survive from one medium to the next. In the case of The Tailor of Panama, the two most glaring alterations are that of the emphasis on Louisa in the novel that is absent on the screen and the conclusion. John le Carre’s novel is far more ambiguous and darker, typical of his literature dating back to his masterpiece, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (itself adapted to film in 1964). The film instead salvages some semblance of optimism in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Andy Oxnard’s machinations.
When the film opened in March, 2001 it made little fanfare at the box office, earning just $1.8 million in its opening weekend and $13.7 million overall. Perhaps it was a victim of its time, coming at the end of the pre-9/11 era when Americans saw foreign affairs as someone else’s problem. Others perhaps wrongly dismissed it as “Bond Lite” on account of Pierce Brosnan playing a spy outside the James Bond franchise. Today, a decade later, it stands as sort of time capsule of the era; one in which the ownership of the Panama Canal represented a controversial foreign affair vital to the interests of several nations. Written today, The Tailor of Panama would almost certainly demand a plot not to transfer the rights of the Canal, but to destroy it in yet another rote action thriller. Therein lies perhaps the greatest charm of both the novel and the film: they represent a safer era, in which something so disruptive could be (relatively) peaceful.