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

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

The Reverend Thomas says you wet his trousers.

Double Bunk (1961) (SPOILERS) In casting terms, Double Bunk could be a sequel to the previous year’s magnificent School for Scoundrels . This time, Ian Carmichael and Janette Scott (he still almost twice her age) are wedded, and the former continues to make dumb choices. Despite being an unlikely mechanic, Carmichael allows himself to be sold a lemon of a houseboat; last time it was the Nifty Nine. And Dennis Price is once again on hand, trying to fleece him in various ways. Indeed, the screenplay might not be a patch on School for Scoundrels , but with Sid James and the fabulous Liz Fraser also on board, the casting can’t be faulted.