Spy vs. Spy
Welcome to the new cold war
By Tim Pompey 07/31/2014
A Most Wanted Man
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe
Rated R for language
2 hr. 2 min.
When John le Carré tells a story, you can rest assured there will never be a clear division between good and evil. They’re each broken down and mixed together so that the resultant cake is moldy and filled with desperation.
Here’s another thing about his stories: His characters are not necessarily bad people, it’s just that when they’re thrown into the spy mixing bowl, their hearts are infiltrated by a dark world of lies, power grabs and internal rivalries. For le Carré, when you live in darkness, darkness becomes your soul mate.
These points are certainly at the heart of A Most Wanted Man, and no one is more suited to share the nuances of le Carré than the movie’s main character, Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Bachmann, stationed in Hamburg, is part of the German intelligence community, a small part as it turns out. Ever since 9/11 was hatched in Hamburg, the city has been on high alert, searching for new terrorist cells. Bachmann is gathering evidence on potential connections between Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a well-known Islamic cleric and teacher, his charitable work and the siphoning of funds to radical jihadists.
Director Anton Corbijn paints Hoffman and the German spy community as grizzled, weary and not at all cooperative with each other. The film feels like a battered painting whose colors are stepped on, covered in grime and barely noticeable. And always the ever-present question that comes up in a meeting between Bachmann and American embassy representative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright): Why do they continue to do this kind of work? When Sullivan replies, “To make the world a safer place,” Bachmann barely registers a nod. He knows better.
World safety seems to be the dark joke running throughout this film, perhaps posed by le Carré himself, because in spite of a new era of intelligence gathering, the world since 9/11 is not safer. Darker, wearier, scuffed up maybe, but never safe.
In the middle of this struggle, an illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) smuggles his way into Hamburg. When Bachmann learns that Karpov is the son of a dead Chechen mobster (a rich one as it turns out), he begins to wonder if there’s a terrorist tie forming between Karpov and Abdullah. It turns out that Bachmann is not the only one who wonders. His German rival Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) as well as Sullivan herself also want to get their hands on Karpov.
As in the case of the recent le Carré-based film Tinker. Tailor. Soldier. Spy., this story isn’t about action or car chases or bloody escapes. This is a quiet, wearisome story that puts itself together piece by piece and doesn’t mind taking its time to do it. What holds it all together is some very fine direction by Corbijn and some excellent writing by Andrew Bovell.
But Hoffman is the key to it all. Giving perhaps the most muted performance of his career, he manages to brilliantly convey Bachmann’s sense of wounded pride, dispirited outlook, and a dogged determination to be the winner in a very dirty game between him, his fellow countryman and the Americans.
If you can push yourself to engage with this film, it’s worth it just to watch Hoffman act. Every movement means something and every thought is connected to his body language. What’s more, the movie is deceiving in its low-key approach, so much so that when the ending finally hits you like a fist in the mouth, you’re dumbstruck and mortified.
This is le Carré’s world and the world of A Most Wanted Man, where spying may be a political necessity, but it’s after-effects are like wearing a heavy coat filled with dirty little secrets, and once you put on the coat, once it fits your mind and body, you can’t take it off.