MID WAY THROUGH this magnificent movie, CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, Robin Wright’s character, a brunette version of her character in “House of Cards”, says in response to a question posed to her by Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that she does what she does “to help keep people safe”. Later on, in front of a committee, when he’s asked the same question, Gunther repeats Martha’s words. He skulks around in the dark of the night, well outside the law, as the head of a deep covert German spy agency “to keep people safe”
The big difference between Martha’s and Gunther’s identical statements is that even for him, this ‘been there, done that’, seen too much, cynical spy master, his is a genuine expression of honesty. He’s somehow, despite it all still acting for the good of keeping people safe. Martha’s attitude represents pretty much the attitude of the people Phillip is up against: she does what she does for the headlines and the career boost it’ll give her.
John Le Carré’s novel turned movie (and written by him) is, as you’d expect, set in the shadows. And it’s claustrophobic: the action moves from one small, enclosed space to another. We’re in a world of people listening in on others, following them and plotting out moves like chess masters. Indeed, probably the two only ‘innocent’ or rather naïve people in the movie are chess players. Le Careé’s cynicism is reflected in the fact that in the end, in this world of lies and subterfuge, honor and truth really are out of place.
The wanted man of the title is ostensibly Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobyrgin), a refugee Chechen Muslim who has slipped into Hamburg, a city we are told on high alert ever since 9/11 (i.e everywhere). He’s there to locate one Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a shady financier, who holds in trust for him over €10M – the legacy from his dead, gangster father. The German police believe he’s in the city to finance and organize a terrorist plot. They want him caught, arrested and Guantanamo-ed.
For Gunther and his team, however, Issa is just a – probably innocent – lead to much bigger fish. Gunther’s following the money and playing the long game. His intent is to get to the source, to unearth the heart of terrorist funding. As he says, “the minnoes get eaten by the barracudas; the barracudas get eaten by the sharks”. He’s after the killer-whales that eat the shark. It’s a strategy that requires patience and gamesmanship.
His American counterpart – the ruthless, double-crossing Martha – who is quite clearly pulling the strings of both the German counter-intelligence and Internal Security agencies, is all for the fast kill. The quick headline-grabbing imprisonment…which will get her the kudos. She’s happy to sacrifice the sharks for a publicized kill of the barracudas. That at least gives the appearance of success in the ‘war against terror’. It’s a policy that ensures that the cycle of terrorism is forever perpetuated.
These are the guardians of our security.
The most wanted man remains, despite arrests, at large.
In a movie without a car chase or a murder, and with hardly any action to speak of, Director Anton Corbijn (and writer Le Careé) who also gave us Clooney’s moody spy thriller, “The American”, offers us as taut a thriller as you’re likely to get this year. As the story unfolds, and the red herrings are dropped here and there, the audience is kept at the edge of their seats. We know things are going to go wrong. They always do. But when and where? Will people get caught out? Will Gunther’s hunch prove right?
What makes this so irresistibly gripping is its compelling credibility. Who knows how this world of spies really operate. No matter. “A Most Wanted Man” makes us feel that we’re not an audience to an entertainment, but an eavesdropper to a shadowy reality. You keep thinking, as you follow the story down its dark tunnel of lies and deceptions that this really is how it actually works. And this is a credit not only to Corbijn, but to the persuasiveness of the acting.
Philip Seymour Hoffman towers over the movie. My, will he be missed! His Gunther is the absolutely believable antithesis of the movie spy: overweight, alcoholic and chain-smoking. When he speaks (in what seems to me a flawless German accent), his low rumble of words well up from somewhere deep and dark. He manages to combine physical menace with an avuncular tenderness and we can understand precisely why he can both seduce people to go against their friends, and stand up fearlessly to anyone in his way.
Hoffman is not alone. Robin Wright’s CIA Agent Martha is all smiling insincerity. Willem Dafoe’s Tommy is the sleazy wealthy banker forced into acting for the forces of good, despite his best intentions; and the surprise of the movie: Rachel MacAdams as the naïve liberal human rights lawyer, Anabel Rihjter (in a world where she has no rights). She is a compelling balance between vulnerable stupidity and pragmatic acquiescence.
Sadly, this bureaucracy of back-stabbing spies is the force tasked with keeping us all safe. Lock your doors!