Tuesday, August 12, 2014
A Most Wanted Man Movie Review
Master spy novelist John le Carré’s novels have been adapted into films several times. One, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was made twice, the more recent of which may go down as one of the great spy thrillers. Now comes A Most Wanted Man, based on his 2008 novel, which is on the same plane, if not as deeply intricate and taut as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The film, directed by Anton Corbijn and adapted by Andrew Bovell, is a brilliant exercise in restraint. Unlike Corbijn’s last film, The American, it has a great deal of forward momentum, generates real suspense, and is not nearly as opaque. And make no mistake about it – A Most Wanted Man is profoundly and subtly critical of American foreign policy with regard to the war on terror.
The story is set in contemporary Hamburg, which is a much different place post-9/11 than before. The film tells us that the 9/11 hijackers plotted their way to that destructive day in the northern port city at a time when not much attention was paid to the comings and goings of foreign nationals. But it’s a new world now, one in which several Western powers have vested interest in, and vastly different approaches to, curbing global terror. A German named Bachmann heads a small unofficial anti-terror spy ring that moves in and out of the shadows, recruiting snitches on the street to feed information. All this is done with the intention of moving ever upward in the ladder to ensnare bigger fish, as the metaphor goes.
Bachmann, played with understated intensity by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his crew are drawn to Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen ex-convict who washes up on the shores of Hamburg illegally. He’s a person of interest, but they wait to see what he’s up to. He comes seeking a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose bank has special holdings accounts for people with money from dirty deeds. Karpov’s father left a large sum of money in one such account. Karpov also seek political asylum through the assistance of a charitable lawyer named Annabel (Rachel McAdams). But Karpov claims he doesn’t want the money. This is where Bachmann sees an opportunity to go after Abdullah, a liberal intellectual Arab who raises large contributions for various charities, although some percentage always goes missing. Is he funding terrorism on the side? Can Karpov’s money be used as bait to lure the barracuda? Everything is a question because in le Carré’s world of espionage, based on his first-hand experiences as an agent at MI5 and MI6, there are few to no certainties. All they can do is investigate, gather intelligence, and sometimes make a best guess. What Bachmann wants is to keep men like Abudllah on a long leash so as not to either scare off the bigger fish circling around him or push him to become fiercer and more fanatical than his nature.
The movie’s main conceit is that there are two very different approaches to intelligence gathering and taking action based on what you learn. The German intelligence officers and the American State Department, represented here by Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), want results. They want arrests. The politicians they work for need to be able to show the public that progress has been made on the front. Bovell’s adaptation makes it clear which ideology he prefers. Does the practice of “extraordinary rendition” by the United States make anyone safer or does it foment deeper distrust, disdain, and animosity between the West and Islamists?
In his final performance, Hoffmann demonstrates once again the enormous gifts he possessed, especially in portraying men like Bachmann with a weariness that presses down on him constantly. He seems to move slower than the rest of the world as if he’s wading through a thick morass of deceit and disappointment. It’s hard to pinpoint what his values are, whether he lives by a code or not. He doesn’t’ go in for the patriotic fervor expressed by Sullivan in a manner devoid of emotional involvement. He’s just committed to his task and Hoffman’s intensity never lets us forget that fact. Dafoe, McAdams, and Wright give serviceable performances. Nina Hoss has something interesting to offer in the role of one of Bachmann’s team members, bringing a similarly steely gaze that she brought to the title role in Barbara, last year’s German drama set in Cold War era East Germany. Hoffman is the real star of the show, without whom A Most Wanted Man would simply be a better than normal espionage thriller.
It rarely missteps, though some of the plot machinations are not all that inventive. And I have always had misgivings about American actors playing characters with foreign accents while speaking English when the scenes and story demand they would reasonably be speaking another language. It made me wish the movie had simply been made as a German language film populated by German actors. Regardless, Corbijn brings a wonderfully subdued European director’s sensibility to the film, much as Tomas Alfredson did for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s greatest gift is in not overstating its antipathy toward the practices of the U.S. government. That we’re left guessing as to everyone’s true motivations right up to the end makes the film’s final moments extremely powerful, with a shocking realization about the futility of trying to make a difference in the face of such monumentally obtuse decision-making power.