Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe
It says nothing good about the collective faith in the motives and tactics of government agencies that the biggest laugh in A Most Wanted Man comes from an agent stating that the goal of an operation is to "make the world a safer place." Not that laughs abound in this chilly political thriller based on the novel of the same name by John le Carre, but it does have a dark wit that breaches the surface every once in a while like a shark's fin. Helmed by Anton Corbijn, director of the stylishly rendered biopic Control and thriller The American, and featuring the final non-Hunger Games performance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man is a sharp and gripping film, which is all the more impressive for the fact that its depiction of espionage is less of the high action variety and more of the sit, observe, and meticulously collect data variety.
The film opens with the arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim fleeing from torture in Russia, on the shores of Hamburg. Soon after his arrival, he finds sanctuary with a young Turkish immigrant and his mother, who bring him into contact with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights lawyer who agrees to help him make a claim on what turns out to be a sizable inheritance being held in a bank run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Annabel tries to arrange for this claim to be settled as efficiently and quietly as possible, knowing that Issa's tenuous status in the country could bring disaster at any moment. What they don't know, but will soon enough learn, is that the authorities are already on to Issa and have been since virtually the moment he entered the country, and that the question is not whether Issa will be caught, but which agency will take him and for what purpose. One of the agencies looking for Issa is a shadow German intelligence offshoot headed by Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman), who comes to believe that Issa is innocent of any wrongdoing himself, but that he (and the fortune he is trying to claim) could be of use in luring Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a religious and intellectual leader with terrorist ties who is suspected of covertly moving large sums of funds to terrorist groups, into a trap.
Although ostensibly the goal is to "make the world a safer place," Bachmann's pursuit of the big fish is as much (if not more) about salvaging his own reputation, ruined years earlier as a result of his failure to neutralize a terrorist threat. Experience has made him wary of trusting anyone but those on his own small team, which includes Erna (Nina Hoss), the closest thing he seems to have to a confidante. When other agencies, including the CIA in the form of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright in a perfectly flinty performance), begin to circle the target, Bachmann has to perform a delicate balancing act in order to preserve his own operation, which involves bringing an unwilling Brue and Annabel into the fold and getting them to manipulate Issa into offering up his inheritance so that it can be used as bait in the plot against Dr. Abdullah, and coming to some sort of agreement with Martha which will give him leverage against the other German intelligence agency aiming to swoop in. All of this makes for an unhappy marriage of divergent interests, leaving Bachmann having to try to keep (or gain) control of multiple wild cards, from an informant close to Dr. Abdullah who has been having second thoughts, to Brue, whose discomfort with the role he's been given threatens to expose him and derail the plot, to Annabel, whose growing feelings for Issa are at once the thing that allows Bachmann to put her under his thumb and the thing that threatens to make her turn rogue, and Martha, whom Bachmann never really trusts but must rely on nevertheless. It's a dangerous game Bachmann is playing and just one piece moving the wrong way on the board could mean disaster not only for him and his career, but for several lives as well.
Written by Andrew Bovell, A Most Wanted Man is a very carefully paced film which takes its time to introduce and develop its many key characters. Although the plot is driven forward by an urgent situation based in issues of national security, the war on terror, and the threat of extraordinary rendition, this is really a story about the system and the machinery at work behind the scenes, which here reveals itself as multiple bureaucracies undercutting and battling against each other for dominance instead of working together to achieve a common goal. Broadly speaking, each agency is acting in the name of safety, with a mission to ensure the security of a nations (or nations) and its people, but there's so much infighting and intrigue between the agencies, so much jockeying for position and power, that the work becomes less about what happens (or is prevented from happening) than about who can take credit for it. As an audience, we spend most of the film's running time with Bachmann, watching him as he performs some of the more mundane tasks of his job and as he arranges the various pieces into a formation which he hopes will result in a favorable outcome for him, and because he's such an active character and because our perspective is so tied up with him, we start to see him as a man in a position of power. What makes the film's finale so devastating is the way that it so absolutely shatters that image both for the audience and for Bachmann himself. He views himself as a player, and a key one at that, but in the end he's forced to confront the fact that he's little more than a cog in the machine, and no matter how much he wants to do the "right" thing and keep the promises that he's made, he doesn't have the power to follow through.
Bachmann is a character who carries the weight of his failures and mistakes around with him everywhere, but until those final moments he's also a man who still believes that he has a chance to do something that will mend his image and secure a positive legacy for himself. That undercurrent of hope expresses itself in a dry, sometimes dark, wit that might read as flirtatious in his interactions with Erna and Martha were it not so heavily tempered by jaded detachment. Bachmann is a man who has seemingly seen it all and has long since lost whatever patience he once had for the political machinations involved in espionage, and the world weariness that Hoffman brings to the role perfectly complements the somber tone of the film. Corbijn expresses this deep despair by limiting the film's color palette, rendering scenes steeped in deep greys or illuminated by harsh, artificial lights. Though his previous directorial efforts were marked by an overt visual style, here he favors something quieter and more subtle, befitting the story's low key mode. In the end, A Most Wanted Man might prove too slow or too dark for some, particularly coming at this time of the year (though I confess that I found it a relief to be able to walk out into the sunshine after all the gloomy, overcast shots in this film), but I found it to be a smart and effective thriller, and an overall engrossing movie.