A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man ★★★½

When TV partisans declare that their medium has overtaken film in terms of quality this is exactly the kind of film they're imagining as a synecdoche: the subtle, adult genre film with a strong thematic through-line. If they were to pick out a TV series to favourably compare to A Most Wanted Man they could hardly do better than The Wire. After all, both concern themselves with institutions so thoroughly perverted that they end up perpetuating the very pathologies they're supposed to be treating.

Unlike The Wire, A Most Wanted Man only has two hours to do its job so it narrows its focus to one institution and one pathology: it's about how powerful intelligence agencies focus on punitive measures without stopping to consider the long term impacts of their methods. Like The Wire it primarily relies on dialogue and performance to convey its message. Perhaps its most strong, thematically focussed scene is the one in which the head of an American intelligence agency struggles to understand the benefit of cultivating assets to which her German counterpart can only ruefully quote her own words, "To make the world a safer place."

It also narrows its scope, focusing solely on the methods through which the spy agencies undermine their mission and leaving the consequences to the fertile imaginations of its audience. (Jamal may turn terrorist, activist or simply live quietly but one thing is for sure: he'll never trust the state again.) Whether that approach is more or less effective than The Wire's relentless and agonising accounting is a question I'll leave to the partisans who think that TV versus film is a debate that's worth more than a lazy hook for a review.

A Most Wanted Man does however expand beyond its thematic boundaries. For example it documents some sketched-in personal relationships (every possibility of which would be exhaustively explored on a tv show, to the benefit of some and the detriment of others) and, more interestingly, demonstrates an interest in the way in which people are turned into assets.

The most in-depth example of this is Annabel Richter's recruitment. It's accomplished through nothing more than a textbook good cop/bad cop routine. To the audience it feels completely scripted and artificial. We can almost guess the words that each actor is going to recite before they even leave their mouths. It's a feeling that, if anything, is enhanced by the way the scene frequently cuts to surveillance footage. This pattern repeats some time later when Richter turns Issa Karpov except, if anything, it feels even more artificial because it takes place in an apartment that looks exactly like a theatre set.

I don't think this is accidental. These interactions are made to feel creepily artificial (we're shown lights and cameras that the subjects of the scene don't see) because they are. Whatever genuine concern the characters feel for one another its consumed and directed by the institutional pressures bearing down on them.

For making it through all of that nonsense I'm going to leave you with GLEN'S SUPER AWESOME DOUBLE BILL SUGGESTION #1: Omar was also released in 2014 in Australian cinemas and its take on the pathology of intelligence agencies is similar and equally topical.