4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.25.14
John Le Carré continues to write gripping espionage thrillers, and he has the added bonus of seeing many of them translated intelligently to the big screen.
A Most Wanted Man is no exception.
This compelling adaptation is helmed by Dutch director Anton Corbijn, who first came to our attention back in 2010 with his disappointing handling of The American, an adaptation of Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman. In fairness, that film’s failure had more to do with its dull, dreary script and a miscast George Clooney’s soulless performance, along with the fact that it was difficult to sympathize with a career assassin possessing few redeeming qualities.
Corbijn obviously learned a lot from that experience, because A Most Wanted Man boasts everything that his previous thriller lacked. For starters, le Carré’s riveting plot is ripped from contemporary headlines and fueled by the moral dilemma that troubles all progressive Western countries: Can we justify subverting established law in the pursuit of terrorists who refuse to “play fair”?
Le Carré’s densely complex novel has been compressed ingeniously by scripter Andrew Bovell, who deftly stripped away an entire set of supporting players (the British) in order to amplify the German setting and characters, primarily the veteran black-ops surveillance agent who has become the heart of this narrative.
That would be Gunther Bachmann, played to ferocious perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman: the last film he completed before his tragic and untimely death.
To say that Hoffman’s performance is mesmerizing would be gross understatement; the man owns the screen, and this film. The forever disheveled Bachmann is a study in contrasts: a beady-eyed, chain-smoking, whisky-drinking fox who flouts established authority and couldn’t care less about currying favor, and yet possesses investigative skills that cannot be dismissed, even by colleagues and superiors who loathe him.
Hoffman has for quite some time transcended the artifice of performance; he’s one of very few film actors who doesn’t merely “play” a part, but instead fully inhabits the role of moment. That’s particularly true here, where we quickly cease to see Hoffman and instead watch, fascinated, as Gunther Bachmann embraces the sacred trust placed in his hands: to make the world a safer place.
That’s a key line: Watch Hoffman’s body language, and his expression, when he is given the opportunity to toss it back at the individual who first says it to him. Rarely will you see such an impeccably crafted blend of amusement, irony and barely controlled fury.
Corbijn, Bovell and Hoffman have shaped Bachmann into a German cousin of George Smiley, the rueful, similarly rumpled British intelligence agent at the heart of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier,Spy and so many more of le Carré’s novels. Both spies cultivate a seemingly unfocused and distracted attitude that invites ridicule and prompts unknowing colleagues and enemies to underestimate them ... until the moment the trap is sprung. Both men also have the undying loyalty of younger operatives who would, clearly, do anything for their mentors.
But where Smiley is gentle and mild-mannered to the (misleading) point of meekness, Bachmann has the vibrating, tightly wound intensity of a coiled snake. Even so — and this is crucial — Bachmann is neither cruel nor concerned with vindictive payback; he’s an honorable man who sees no reason to harm innocents swept into nefarious events through their own ignorance or naïve idealism.
This sets him apart from the hammer-handed bureaucratic drones in Germany’s “visible” intelligence service, with their bull-in-a-china-shop tendency to act in haste and repent ... well, never. Bachmann, understanding the value of the long game, prefers to watch the small fish and wait, in the hopes that minnows will lead to barracudas, who in turn will point to the much-desired sharks.
Even given the care Bovell takes with his script, this remains a complicated story with many characters; close attention must be paid. (In other words, don’t plan on bathroom breaks.)
The contemporary saga is set in Hamburg, where the intelligence community still smarts from the knowledge that their city unknowingly hosted the terrorists who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The resulting paranoia hasn’t diminished much, during the intervening decade-plus; this atmosphere of suspicion and dread lends additional weight to Bachmann’s unspoken determination that it never ... happen ... again.
Corbijn opens his film on the unsettling image of a bearded young man (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who, under cover of darkness, swims ashore from the River Elbe. He clutches a backpack, later seen to contain a change of clothes and a prayer mat, the latter faithfully employed each day. He contacts a Turkish woman and her adult son, who shelter this drifter and introduce him to Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an idealistic young lawyer who works with a human rights organization called Sanctuary North.
By this point, the young man has been identified by Bachmann and his team as Issa Karpov, a 26-year-old Chechen classified by Interpol as an escaped militant jihadist. Soon Karpov and Richter are under full-time surveillance by Bachman’s operatives, including Niki (Vicky Krieps), Max (Daniel Brühl, well remembered as Niki Lauda, in Rush) and most particularly Irna (Nina Hoss). We sense a deeper relationship between Bachmann and the sophisticated Irna ... or at least there would be, if he allowed it. She clearly loves him, but is content to let their interactions remain professional.
We also sense a degree of pragmatism in Irna, which Bachmann either lacks or chooses to ignore: an acknowledgment of “the system” and its requirements.
Richter, earning Karpov’s trust, learns that he is seeking an audience with banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), head of the long-established private bank Brue Freres; the young Chechen wishes to claim an inheritance from his deceased father. This seemingly innocuous request takes on an entirely different meaning when Brue, intercepted by Bachmann, reveals that the account in question contains tens of millions of Euros.
What, precisely, would Issa Karpov do with so much money? And might this somehow tie in with Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a moderate Muslim academic, family man and noble charity fundraiser whom Bachmann has long suspected of clandestinely funneling money to terrorist Islamic organizations?
Bachmann may not get the opportunity to find out, because his every move is being shadowed by Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), the clumsy, impulsive head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Mohr, caring little for Bachmann’s long game, wants Karpov arrested immediately.
To make matters worse, this situation has aroused the interest of the Americans, in the form of German-based CIA spy Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Sullivan shares similar suspicions about Abdullah, but Bachmann doesn’t trust her; she represents the country, and the agency, increasingly despised for behavior such as extraordinary rendition and torture (an attitude given up-to-the-minute heft by the current sorry state of real-world German/American relations).
Still, Sullivan seems able to influence Mohr — to hold him back — and therefore could be an important ally.
We can only smile, at about this point, when Karpov and Richter are shown enjoying the occasional game of chess: an apt metaphor for the far greater game being played by Bachmann and his intelligence colleagues (friend and foe), with various pieces moved — and sacrificed — as needed.
Dafoe is spot-on as an upstanding businessman intimidated into cooperation: both frightened by these escalating events, and unable to ignore them. Hoss is similarly persuasive as Bachmann’s trusted lieutenant: cool and methodical, tolerant of her boss’ moody behavior, but still forthright when it comes to advising caution. And she’s probably the only person he’d listen to.
Wright is appropriately cold and condescending as Sullivan: every inch the arrogant American spy. She carries a weight of authority that is both respected and detested by her German colleagues: an air of smug superiority that suggests only she knows what’s really going on, while everybody else is simply playing silly buggers.
McAdams ... is a bit of a problem. She’s the one cast member who feels miscast: a disconnect not helped by her inelegant German accent. She simply can’t shake the look and feel of her North American (Canadian) roots, and her fresh-faced, just-off-the-beach mannerisms are a frequent distraction. It’s not that she’s a bad actress; indeed, she’s reasonably convincing as an idealistic young attorney. She simply doesn’t fit, and that detracts — if only slightly — from the film’s otherwise rigorously authentic atmosphere.
Benoît Delhomme’s cinema-verité camerawork is gritty and grainy, at times as hazy as the cigarette smoke that swirls lazily above Hoffman’s head. It’s the perfect look for Corbijn’s handling of his film, which often echoes the atmosphere of classic 1960s espionage thrillers such as The Ipcress File and le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Herbert Grönemeyer’s orchestral score is moody, tense and frequently unsettling: at times almost subliminal. Editor Claire Simpson orchestrates Corbijn’s vision with precision, helping build the story’s intensity by employing shorter takes, as we move from the first act to the climax. Even toward the end, though, Corbijn isn’t afraid to pause, generally holding on Hoffman’s Bachmann, because — even at rest — his star is so mesmerizing.
Like its central character, this film is slow and methodical; also like its central character, those qualities are never, ever boring. A Most Wanted Man lacks the flash of popcorn spy flicks in the James Bond vein, but it’s intriguing — and disturbing — for entirely different reasons. Le Carré has a gift for envisioning an intelligence community, capable and ill-fated, that feels chillingly probable.
Corbijn has captured that tone, and done so with precision. And while the fact that Hoffman’s final performance is one of his best, may be a serendipitous sidebar, it certainly doesn’t detract from this film’s power.