Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) is a MI-6 spy exiled to Panama after having an affair with an ambassador’s mistress. He trusts that he can uncover something big that will get him back into London’s good graces. Believing Panama to still be corrupt after General Noriega’s reign, and as the Americans have now given the Panama Canal back to Panama, Osnard concludes that if he can find out where the true balance of power surrounding the canal is, London will want him back.
His informant is a tailor, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), who has a few secrets of his own. Harry's wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the assistant to the Canal director. Harry is in need of money and doesn’t have the business sense to ask his customers for the money to pay for their suits. Osnard knows that Harry has been lying about his background. He persuades the tailor to spy on his own wife to find out what the President plans on doing with the Canal. Pendel agrees and begins spinning stories to keep the money from Osnard flowing.
There are many differences between the novel and the film, most significant being the issue of the Canal. The novel is set in the mid-1990's prior to the hand-over of the Canal to the Panamanian Government from the United States. In the film, this has already happened and the plot is changed to reflect that. In addition, much more is known about Harry Pendel's past and his relationships with Marta and Mickie. The background of Andrew "Andy" Osnard is also changed. In the film, he is seen as a semi-washed up foreign services officer who is given a posting in Panama so he will not be able to cause any trouble. In the novel, he is seen as a younger man who is hoping for a big break which will get him the posting of his choice. He sees Pendel as his way out. But the crucial difference is the final section where the poignant bitterness of the novel is replaced with a glib happy ending and the Americans call off an accidental attack.