Skip to main content

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.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady making who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It (2017)
(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the hor…

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine (1983)
(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.

Don't worry about Steed, ducky. I'll see he doesn't suffer.

The Avengers 4.11: Two’s A Crowd
Oh, look. Another Steed doppelganger episode. Or is it? One might be similarly less than complimentary about Warren Mitchell dusting off his bungling Russian agent/ambassador routine (it obviously went down a storm with the producers; he previously played Keller in The Charmers and Brodny would return in The See-Through Man). Two’s A Crowd coasts on the charm of its leads and supporting performances (including Julian Glover), but it’s middling fare at best.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

Why are you painting my house?

mother!
(SPOILERS) Darren Aronofsky has a reasonably-sized chin, but on this evidence, he’ll have reduced it to a forlorn stump with all that stroking in no time at all. And then set the remains alight. And then summoned it back into existence for a whole new round of stroking. mother! is a self-indulgent exercise in unabated tedium in the name of a BIG idea, one no amount of assertive psued-ing post-the-fact can turn into a masterpiece. Yes, that much-noted “F” cinemascore was well warranted.

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

Let the monsters kill each other.

Game of Thrones Season Seven
(SPOILERS) Column inches devoted to Game of Thrones, even in “respectable” publications, seems to increase exponentially with each new season, so may well reach critical mass with the final run. Groundswells of opinion duly become more evident, and as happens with many a show by somewhere around this point, if not a couple of years prior, Season Seven has seen many of the faithful turn on once hallowed storytelling, and at least in part, there’s good reason for that.

Some suggest the show has jumped the shark (or crashed the Wall); there were concerns over how much the pace increased last year, divested as it was of George RR Martin’s novels as a direct source, but this year’s succession of events make Six seem positively sluggish. I don’t think GoT has suddenly, resoundingly, lost it, and I’d argue there did need to be an increase in momentum (people are quick to forget how much moaning went on about seemingly nothing happening for long stretches of previ…

James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing.

Thunderball (1965)
Look up! Look down! Look out! Her comes the biggest Bond of all! So advised the poster for the fourth 007 cinematic feast. Biggest it most definitely was, but unfortunately in almost every other respect the finished film is inferior to its three predecessors. Nevertheless, the approach taken by the producers (a favourite of Hollywood generally) was to throw enough money at the screen in the hope it would result in higher box office receipts. Which proved a successful one on this occasion. It remains the highest grossing Bond film (inflation-adjusted), in the US.