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To make the world a safer place. Isn't that enough?

A Most Wanted Man
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t disappoint in his final lead role. Imagine Columbo as an overweight (sort of) German, with the cadence of Anthony Hopkins and a voice like a human ashtray, and you might get close to Hoffman’s impeccable performance. He’s by far the best thing about Anton Corbijn’s handsome but staid adaptation of John Le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name.


This is latter-day Le Carré, and, shorn of a Cold War milieu, his tales don’t seem to be quite as intricate or necessary. Perhaps it’s the lack of first hand knowledge, but this subject matter doesn’t carry quite the same weight; the various pieces are assembled in a manner that smacks of convenience, and the linear form means intrigue is on a backburner. A Most Wanted Man is engaging, sedate, but slight. It tackles the War on Terror in a manner oblique enough that it could very nearly concern any spy craft in any era; set an elaborate trap (or traps) to turn the fellow you need in order to catch a bigger fish. Along the way, there is backstabbing and in fighting, souring an operation that might well have succeeded. One would be forgiven at points for forgetting this was supposed to be set in the present day, such is the affection for familiar espionage tropes.


Le Carré intended his novel to form a rebuke of George W’s policy of extraordinary rendition. It is certainly a key element of the film version of A Most Wanted Man, but this is an area that has been tackled frequently in the slew of (mostly financially unsuccessful) Middle East conflict movies. The outrage that has inspired filmmakers is more than justified, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it inspires great movies. There is a sense that, unless the manufactured response to 9/11 is addressed, fictional recreations will fail to recognise the bigger picture. In a conflict where the West’s response has been based on lies and misinformation, and appeals to simplistic ideas of good and evil, delivering a workable narrative, one that doesn’t fall victim to outworn traditions of the genre, is going to be a particular challenge. A spy film that fails to appreciate this risks appearing as out of touch as a Vietnam flick fuelled by John Wayne-style WWII heroics.


The result in this case is that there’s little new here beyond the fine performances and a photographer’s polished appraisal of Hamburg. Perhaps, if the focus had stayed on Willem Dafoe’s banker Tommy Brue, rather than Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann, the picture would have felt less familiar or broken new ground. Like one of those Michael Caine ‘80s spy movies, A Most Wanted Man can’t compete with its predecessors in the genre. Corbijn is studiously unconcerned with Hollywood thrill-making, which is to his credit, but that means his plot needs to weave its web more engrossingly than it does.


An opening title informs us the 9/11 attacks were conceived and planned in Hamburg, but intelligence failures and rivalries enabled their unimpeded execution. As a result, agencies there remained on high alert lest they repeat mistakes.  The implication being, the haste of the forces in this particular story (excepting the wise owl that is Bachmann) could allow a more dangerous prey to abide untouched. This is as much a paean to the old Smiley way of spying, the good old days when spies fought with their wits.


The set up is on the muddy side; a Chechen Muslim Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobyrgin, barely there), a torture victim, arrives in the city to claim an inheritance his father left him (a Russian general who raped his 15-year-old mother). Issa is understandably conflicted about having anything to do with his father’s wealth. Rachel McAdam’s crusading lawyer, Annabel Richter, adopts Issa as her cause, however. She contacts Brue, whose father laundered money for Issa’s father; Brue is attempting to clean up his father’s dubious business dealings.


Bachmann has wind of Issa’s entry into the country, and his possible terrorist connections. He also has suspicions about the possibly covert terrorist financing of an apparently spotless Muslim scholar, Dr Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). Bachmann sees a means to ensure the cooperation of Abdullah, and utilise this connections to catch whoever is really in charge.  His masters (including Rainer Bock) are not enthused by his plan, but American CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) encourages them to give Bachmann a chance to do it his way.


Bachmann is set apart from his colleagues, by virtue of not seeing the world in black and white terms. He shows understanding of human nature (“But even a good man has a little bit of bad, doesn’t he?”) that eludes them, even in the plot’s more florid moments (the son of Abdullah is pressured to betray his father as “an act of love”). Whether it even suits America’s (or his bosses’) purpose to show such diligence and acumen may not be Le Carré’s focus, but this may be a failing. As much as Bachmann is interested in playing the long game, the CIA is not.


Maybe it is as simple as Le Carré suggests, and brazen short-sightedness (or ineptitude) is to blame. Or perhaps they have their own long game, one where the total subjugation of threats would not be in their best interests; in an environment where trust in the establishment has been so eroded, little would come as a surprise. Of course, entertaining such thoughts can lead to conspiratorial abandon, but a modern spy movie is threadbare without at least acknowledging such talk. Playing the spy game as straight as A Most Wanted Man leaves it looking a little naïve.


While that’s a criticism, it’s qualified. Corbijn’s slow burn approach to storytelling appeals, as Bachmann nurses and coaxes events towards the outcome he desires. Screenwriter Andrew Bovell also helped bring the less nuanced (compared to the masterful TV original) adaptation of Edge of Darkness to the screen, and they share protagonists who discover themselves out of step with the institutions they serve. A Most Wanted Man is less extreme, but there’s no doubting that Gunther’s failure in the final scene. His operation has been botched by his own security services (the uncertainty in Gunther’s gaze suggests he may even suspect his own colleagues of involvement) and the US alike, for the sake of instant and lesser results.


Hoffman is an absolute powerhouse. A shambolic, chain-smoking mess, Bachmann is a man out of time (so much so he’s apparently free to smoke in German bars!) Even the act of placing coins on a table is mesmerising. Dafoe does fine work on a limited canvas. McAdams is more problematic. She’s competent, but she is never other than an American actress playing at Germans. Her relationship with Issa lacks substance. We aren’t given sufficient reason to believe in it, and Issa as a character bends according to the whims of the plot. There’s also the nagging question of the surprising lack of paranoia and precautions by those under surveillance, particularly one in as delicate a position as Abudllah.


There have been a few movies lately with English/American casts (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, the upcoming Child 44) that invite the question, “Why adopt outrageous accents if you aren’t going to speak the language?” It feels inherently like a conceit that should have perished 20 or 30 years ago. But it’s also one where, if the movie is good enough, concerns ought to fade away in the first 10 minutes. In Hoffman’s scenes they do, but only when he’s on screen.


The main reason for watching an Anton Corbijn film is the exquisite compositions of a photographer at work. A Most Wanted Man doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Whether he’s shooting in a club (to the strains of sometime study Bowie’s Everyone Says Hi, covered by Claudia Brucken) or an immaculate boardroom (all white ceilings, glass walls and precision-placed bottles of still water) the results are striking. He’s also a dab hand at the set piece; a pursuit onto a train, the all-important transfer of funds, the climactic rout. They illustrate Corbijn could deliver Hollywood fireworks if he so wished, but he intentionally curtails them. In this dissatisfied world, the audience is declined the distraction of cheap thrills.


The success of Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy, a surprisingly excellent adaptation of a novel one would have thought fundamentally adverse to the limitations of a two hour movie (particularly if one has seen the leisurely and densely layered TV version), has fired renewed desire to adapt Le Carré’. Upcoming is Our Kind of Traitor and also a TV version of The Night Manager. There is the will to tackle Smiley’s People in due course. A Most Wanted Man illustrates that, no matter how impeccably the author’s scenarios are furnished and performed, the central plot needs to be sufficiently robust or it will lack resonance. This is a decent film, a decent adaptation, but it isn’t vintage Le Carré.


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