Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenplay: Andrew Bovell. Novel by John le Carré
Runtime: 122 minutes
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Robin Wright.
Trailer: “We’re not policemen, we’re spies.” (warning: way to blow your cover, doofus.)
Plot: Günther Bachmann is an agent and handler who specialises in building intelligence networks using small time terrorists to take down bigger fish. When a way to take down the biggest fish – philanthropist and terror money man Dr. Abdullah – arises, Bachmann targets Chechen asylum seeker and honest Muslim Issa Karpov. Using every dirty trick in the book, Bachmann gets his man – but at what cost?
Review: Even the best adaptations of John le Carré tend to be frustratingly slow at points and often devoid of action, but A Most Wanted Man hits a new low. Glacially paced, and with a sometimes open contempt for the patience of its audience, the film is only held together by a riveting performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther Bachmann. His character is an intelligence agent for an illegal German government initiative to build intelligence networks in the port city of Hamburg. The subject matter of the film does not help; spending most of its time either obsessing over bureaucratic rivalries between various intelligence agencies, or tracing the highly illegal surveillance of Chechen asylum seeker Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin).
As a film going experience, viewing A Most Wanted Man is like attending a series of back-to-back business meetings, and the climax of the film centres on whether a character will or will not sign a series of documents. More excitement could be extracted from a day in the life of a real estate agent. Only current and former members of the intelligence community are likely to warm to this film; portraying, as it does, their everyday struggles to overcome the stupidities of their colleagues and rival agencies through the means of memos, briefs, talking points, and collection priority meetings. The rest of us are left to marvel at the glamour of working sources to generate further paperwork in the name of keeping the country safe.
I do take it that this is the point of le Carré’s narrative; it is just that in practice and realisation it is not that gripping. The film closely follows Günther Bachmann’s possibly illegal operation, and the techniques that he employs to develop sources such as the German lawyer representing Issa (Nina Hoss). The techniques are everything you would expect in a spy thriller – wiretapping, hidden cameras, long self-serving speeches to sources who are wavering, intimidation and interrogation of potentially valuable targets. It all follows the “ends justify the means” vibe, le Carré’s critique being that Bachmann believes there is always a bigger fish and a bigger end justifying the scale of legal abuses that he commissions.
However, the script is careful not to allow Bachmann to go too far; so there is illegal detention and good cop/bad cop interrogation, but none of the heavier and more dubious means many countries’ counter-terrorism legislation currently condones. Bachman is always portrayed as a good man; working for a positive outcome, even for the sources he manipulates, and constantly fending off his colleagues’ heavier handed approaches. The critique that le Carré implicitly deploys is similar to Agamben’s critique of the ‘state of exception,’ where the symbolic Reichstag fire justifies the force of the law in all its means, while emptying it of its contents and any meaningful ends. Substituted for this is the question the film asks throughout – ‘to make the world a safer place – isn’t that enough?’
But those looking for a stunning indictment of the logic of security, in the face of a generalised irrationality of terror, will not find it here. Bachmann is too much of a sympathetic Dirty Harry, the at-all-costs cop with a heart of gold. Neither is the disapproval of his methods garnered much during the course of the film, as we are given official antagonists whose methods are worse. That Bachmann intended to make good the promises he has made to the people he used, after his various trespasses, reads like the thief’s justification of intending to pay it all back. Ultimately, this is a narrative that is ethically hollow and aesthetically forgettable.
The performances range from the outstanding to the average; with Robin Wright solidifying her new reputation as an American Lady Macbeth, minus the remorse. One can’t help but read these repetitive female politico archetypes as a broad discomfort with women in the political sphere; and hopefully that will disappear with the generation who ravenously devours these tedious thrillers and their Scandinavian ilk. After The American and now A Most Wanted Man, have no doubt that director Anton Corbijn will be back to serve up more of his unoriginal fare. But I suspect he doesn’t realise these films act as a form of political immunisation; and that by portraying the lighter realm of ethical abuses of power in a sympathetic light, he puts his audience to sleep in the face of a greater terror.
Rating: Two long, tedious hours.