By the time you read this, I will be dead. Well, not quite, but by the time you read this, The Tailor of Panama may already have come and gone from the theaters. Which is a shame, because director John Boorman has fashioned a well-made movie which raises a lot of issues while still being entertaining.
Geoffrey Rush plays the title character, a man who left a checkered past behind in England to set up shop in Panama. Now he tailors suits for the wealthy and the powerful of that country, a vocation which allows him access to some of the most private clubs in the land. Unfortunately, his former British citizenship and his current customer list attract the attention of British Intelligence. It seems the British government is extremely nervous about the future of the Panama Canal, now that control has been transferred from U.S. hands to Panama.
Enter British spy Pierce Brosnan, assigned to the Panama case as punishment for sexual and gambling indiscretions of his own. He contacts Rush, and with a combination of threats and monetary incentives, coerces Rush to discreetly gather intelligence information from his clients as he tailors their suits. But what happens if you have no information to give, yet the threats and rewards are too persuasive to turn down? Why, you start making stories up, of course, and when the home office starts believing you, the whole situation snowballs out of control.
Brosnan’s character, as you might imagine, is a riff on his James Bond persona, but it’s never played for broad laughs. Instead, we see a man driven by greed and ambition, and not averse to using an occasional four-letter word or two. His belief in God and country only extends to securing himself a hefty nest egg before his imminent forced retirement. When he makes a play for Rush’s wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), the usual James Bond suave sexual prowess becomes loathsome in our eyes. In another scene (one of the film’s few missteps), it’s strongly suggested Brosnan’s character leads a bisexual lifestyle.
The aspect I admired most about this film is the way there is no clear villian, but just a number of people pursuing their own selfish interests which causes bad things to happen. “Every man likes to think he could be something more than he is,” Rush says at the beginning of the movie, and it’s such striving and posturing which causes several tragedies and near tragedies in the film. We’re also encouraged to open our eyes to what life is like in such a Central American country. The extreme poverty of the average Panamanian citizen is everywhere evident, as is the unseen hand of their corrupt and oppressive government. It’s not clear that Brosnan and the British government have a right to be interfering in Panamanian affairs, yet at the same time Boorman never pretends things would be any rosier without their interference. As the saying goes, “It is what it is.”