A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Dir: Anton Corbijn
The 9/11 attacks were partially planned in the port city of Hamburg, Germany. Since then the city’s been on high alert, with government agents assigned to monitor and stop any potential terrorism. This is the setup for A Most Wanted Man, adapted from a John le Carré novel by Anton Corbijn. The modern war on terror is a game of brinkmanship, with men and women in dim rooms moving pieces around a board and hoping for the best outcome. With a global landscape that’s irreparably shifted, the spies that ply their trade have to deal with the ground constantly moving beneath their feet. At the centre of this web of espionage is the stalwart Gunther Bachman (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of the covert anti-terrorism cell that monitors Muslim activity in modern-day Hamburg.
A Most Wanted Man spins a complex web of relationships and plot (not unlike the recent le Carré adaptation Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), and simply trusts that the viewer will keep up. The inciting incident is the arrival of a Chechen Muslim immigrant in Hamburg. Sporting a thick beard and haunted eyes, Issa Karpov (Grigori Dobrygin) has illegally made his way into Germany. He’s taken in by kindly strangers who connect him with idealistic immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Bachman and his team have been surreptitiously tracking Karpov’s movements closely and, despite his colleagues’ protestations, have allowed him to roam free. Bachman’s a seasoned spy, quixotic yet wary. He subscribes to the ethos that Karpov (who may or may not even be a terrorist) will lead him to bigger fish so long as he strings him along. To do so, he must bring increasingly more individuals into his web – like financier Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) – while navigating the politics of his job and the possible interference of rival American agents like Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). The plot is methodically paced and, while light on action, doesn’t skimp on incident or detail.
Although le Carré’s been writing novels for over 50 years, A Most Wanted Man is a thoroughly modern look at what it means to be a spy and what kind of morally muddied waters these men and women of espionage operate in (have always operated in?). The surveillance scenes bear a striking resemblance to TV’s Homeland, and the manner in which Bachman and his team attempt to ensnare Karpov and use him for their purposes is questionably ethical. Karpov himself was subjected to extreme torture in Russia before escaping, and the movie sets up his possible innocence as a case against “forceful interrogation”. And not only is Bachman attempting to work his way up the food chain of a terrorist network, but he also finds barriers in his own agency. A Most Wanted Man shows the frustrating bureaucracy and red tape that can hamper the best intentions, as Bachman is, by his own admission, just looking “to make the world a safer place”.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is predictably stellar as Bachman. His slumped, wide frame and thousand yard stare convey a bear of a man, a fighter whose best years are behind him but is unwilling to ever give up. He smokes and drinks and punches people out in bars. He stomps around purposefully while muttering commands and charming women, and rises to the occasion when he has to give a rousing speech. Understated yet iconic, the doughy Hoffman sells it completely. He does speak in a German accent, as do McAdams and Dafoe, which is initially distracting but negligible after a while.
The city of Hamburg could be considered a character unto itself and Corbijn, a former photographer and music video director, displays it well. From canals to shipyards to graffitied underpasses to opulent banks, Corbijn brings a keen eye to the proceedings and has seemingly made a cottage industry for himself by filming picturesque European locales (Britain in stark black and white in his debut Control and Southern Italy in warm hues in his follow up The American) as no other modern director can. The same criticisms of his previous films apply here as well: that they’re emotionally cold and distant, full of beautiful aesthetics but ultimately bloodless. For a sly le Carré adaptation that’s likely the correct approach. The film is set in Germany, directed by a Dutchman and stars a multinational cast, but it’s beating, measured heart is still the British source material. The stiff upper lip is alive and well here and instead of emotional fireworks there’s often implied meanings – ice-cubes tossed aside, a sideways glance, all in place of things that can’t be said.
That’s not to say that characters don’t emote – they do. And watching Hoffman do it is a bittersweet pleasure. A Most Wanted Man was the last of his films to be released while he was alive and even if the movie around him was trash (it’s not), it’d still be worth it for his performance alone. It’s a measured film that demands patience; the rewards are in the details. Commentary (condemnation?) on the modern war on terror, lush cinematography, a gut-punch ending, a fine actor at the top of his game – it’s all there and it’s all good.