A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

The stories of John le Carré have proven highly flexible in the transition from text to film. A director has plenty of leeway to put his own particular mark on these tales, the most recent examples being Fernando Mereilles' A Constant Gardener and Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. With A Most Wanted Man, Anton Corbijn doesn't shoot for the same heights of drama or style. Instead he paints within his palette, which is well-suited for music videos, where he has decades of home field advantage. But as a director of feature films, Corbijn seems to miss the music that animates his creativity. This film, as well as The American, are good at stewing in an ever-deepening web of circumstances, but the mood and style of the pieces feel milky and inert.

But unlike The American, the script here offers more to chew on. Günther Bachmann, played with tangible grizzliness by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, presents a nebulous perspective in the unforgivingly black-or-white world of post-9/11 counter-terrorism. It's not that he hasn't chosen a side, but he has little problem imagining the motivations of those across the battle lines - a quality his colleagues and superiors in German intelligence don't necessarily share.

When he encounters a major financial player in Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), he keenly identifies him as someone who is lost between two worlds: a pro-Western, peace-advocating Muslim who nonetheless seems to be kicking a little of his considerable earnings to jihadist organizations in Yemen and elsewhere.

The film is concerned always with those who seem to be crossing this line in some way. We're brought into the story from the perspective of Issa Karpov, a Chechen Muslim and suspected terrorist seeking asylum in Hamburg, where Bachmann operates. As the story progresses we find that Issa, originally Ivan, is also adrift between cultures. Rachel McAdams plays a young German lawyer from a well-to-do family who crosses this line in her own way, working for an organization that attempts to provide sanctuary to protect people like Issa. But under slight pressure from Bachmann's shadowy intelligence unit, she hurries back to the safety of her station - but not without attempting to assure Issa's safety first.

Bachmann's angle in all this is to use these lost souls to the state's advantage. He heads up a small and explicitly illegal unit that cultivates resources within Germany's Islamic community in order to sniff out possible violent threats. This is something we may or may not find ethically unacceptable on the part of the state, but at the ground level, the film presents the unit as a necessary reality. The cultural lines that each character negotiates are never more pronounced than in the character of Jamal, Dr. Abdullah’s son. Though he loves his father, he’s also been cultivated as one of Bachmann’s most valuable assets, an inside man who can move into insular Muslim spaces without arousing suspicion. Bachmann, Jamal and Abdullah form a triangle - two fathers on either side of a divide, and a son trying to please both. Issa Karpov struggles with a similar lot.

So, while the director is content to plod along almost half-heartedly, A Most Wanted Man is buoyed by a powerfully understated performance from Hoffman and a script that’s absolutely stuffed with interesting dynamics between the personal and the ideological that illuminate the subtext. But a film can’t just exist in the subtext. Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor wisely chose to stylize and dramatize the isolation, paranoia and ideological warfare of its source material. Corbijn’s style has been praised for its restraint and subtlety but to me it plays more like overcautious uncertainty, highlighting Hoffman but almost burying every vein of gold offered up by the story. I like a good procedural, and le Carré writes some of the best, but even the best can be rendered limp in the wrong hands.

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