Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

It turns out that we need A Most Wanted Man very much. I haven't read the John LeCarre novel on which Anton Corbijn's new film is based, but I'm guessing we have Corbijn to thank for bringing LeCarre's critique of post-9/11 intelligence practices to a wider audience. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a marvelous sad-sack performance) is an intelligence officer of the old school, one who values human resources above all else and views ideology as a nuisance at best. Gunther and team work a network of sources in Hamburg to fight Islamic terrorism, and Gunther has come to believe a prominent liberal Muslim named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) may be channeling money to Al Qaeda. Gunther wants to turn Abdullah against bigger targets, but first he must unravel the case of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and an inheritance that can be used as bait. Gunther's rival Mohr (Rainer Bock) and the CIA officer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) favor a more blunt approach to anti-terrorism, it's implied that Issa and Abdullah will simply be captured and taken out of play, and at heart A Most Wanted Man (adapted by Andrew Bovell) is a dialogue between two ways of answering the question of what to do about radical Islam.

The Hamburg of A Most Wanted Man is a stew of religious and ethnic differences, and the sterile rooms in which Gunther defends his tactics feel very far removed from the streets where he meets informants and surveils a lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a banker (Willem Dafoe) connected to Issa's money. Corbijn is superb at cutting between conversations, surveillance vans, and agents watching from different angles, and while the film is heavily detailed it's also neither slow (save for a brief pass at intimacy between Issa and McAdams' lawyer) nor confusing. At the center of it all is Hoffman, and of course it's impossible to watch A Most Wanted Man without thinking about Hoffman's death. The fact that Gunther isn't a healthy man - far too many drinks, smokes, and too much bad food - is difficult to separate from what we know about the end of Hoffman's life, but there is much in the performance to call attention to on the merits. Late in the film Gunther must win approval from a government minister for his plan to catch and turn Abdullah, and Gunther mentions "making the world a safer place" (a phrase Wright's CIA officer had used earlier) as a motivation. Corbijn holds the camera on Gunther for a moment after the line, and Hoffman gives a tiny, brilliant take that reveals the character is disgusted and amused in equal measure at what's required to do his job. It's a small moment but also a great piece of screen acting, and it's the way I want to remember this actor. A Most Wanted Man creates a fully realized post-9/11 world in all it's complexity, and that is the reason I used the word "need" in the first sentence of this review. Put another way, this isn't a film about how spies behave but rather one about how humans behave.