The career of John le Carré has taken him from the chessboard to the pulpit. His early novels (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) fully acknowledged the ugly business that spies do, while still giving us the thrill of gamesmanship: the stratagems, the moves and counter-moves. On the other hand, his post-Cold War works (including The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener) have downplayed his abiding interest in government intelligence in favor of finger-wagging pronouncements that we are all essentially fucked. In our brave new world, according to le Carré, secret agentry is nothing other than bad men using every means at their disposal to do bad things to good people.
That hell-in-a-handbasket mood hangs like a funeral shroud over A Most Wanted Man (2008), which returns to the Germany featured in so many of le Carré’s Cold War stories. Anton Corbijn’s film is an astringent affair: like its central character, disheveled German operator Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), it doesn’t court our approval or our sympathy, and yet by the end it earns both. The title of the story could refer to solemn young Chechen refugee Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a suspected jihadist with a name that means “Jesus” (“Maybe he’s come to save us all,” Bachmann muses) who seeks asylum and a weighty inheritance of dirty money in Hamburg. It could refer to the respectable Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a “good” upper-class Muslim who might be financing terror organizations. Or the real “wanted” man could be a high-ranking terrorist, and Karpov and Abdullah are merely pawns that can be used to get at the true monsters — or at least that’s what Bachmann perceives the situation to be. Exiled to Germany due to a past incident in Beirut, Bachmann is intent on playing the long game, letting Karpov and Abdullah get what they want so he can catch the big fish — even if it means shucking his fuddy-duddy superiors and incurring the wrath of Uncle Sam, personified here by Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a CIA operative with a twinkle in the eye and a wholly duplicitous air.
Based on that summary alone, you’d assume A Most Wanted Man is stuffed with skulduggery and betrayal, messages smuggled in cigarette packs, anonymous men tailing in sleek sedans, hidden cameras and microphones straining to entrap their subjects … and you wouldn’t be wrong. Still, le Carré (and Corbijn) are more interested in the moral implications of the War of Terror than the mechanics of spycraft, and how good intentions barrel straight towards disillusionment. Like George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Bachmann is an anachronism: a dogged soldier who believes in nothing save the quaint belief that he can do some good, a gumshoe who susses things out by pasting photos and post-its on bulletin boards. But while the Smiley novels ultimately lead to the reassurance that order will be restored (albeit at a high cost), A Most Wanted Man leads Bachmann to a very dark place indeed.
Corbijn previously directed the stylish but empty The American (2010), and reverses course here, for the better. Where that film was satisfied with lingering on the cool, inscrutable countenance of George Clooney, and soaking in atmosphere rather than building an actual story, here we get up close and personal with the stubbly, jowly face of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and trudge alongside him as he goes about the plodding procedural business of separating fact from innuendo, ferreting out opportunity from weakness. Maybe too plodding: le Carré’s book overloads on rhetoric, and while Corbijn does a decent job of paring down the speechifying, he can’t do much to charge up the narrative, save for a chase on the Hamburg streets that feels shoe-horned in. A Most Wanted Man works best when it dispenses with suspense entirely and sticks to viewing the characters as chess pieces, with Grandmaster Bachmann pondering his next moves. The film might lack the momentum of Thomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), but in its measured rhythms, its focus on the process, it comes closer to capturing the true spirit of le Carré. Stealing from touchstones like The Third Man (a gratuitous shot of Hoffman amid autumn foliage recalls the devastation of that film’s denouement), Corbijn paints Hamburg with industrial grays and chemical yellows, letting us luxuriate in the grit.
“What are we trying to achieve here?”
“To make the world a safer place. Isn’t that enough?”
The other actors who orbit around Hoffman are a mixed bag: Willem Dafoe is convincing as a banker with the tiniest pang of a conscience, and Nina Hoss quietly delights as Bachmann’s partner Irna, the both of them trading repartee and disapproving glances like a married couple (the closest the movie comes to pathos is when the two of them kiss to avoid notice while carrying out surveillance, and her gaze sticks with him for a quick moment). More problematic is Rachel McAdams, who trips all over her not-from-this-stadt accent: she plays an idealistic social worker who takes up Issa’s case and ends up falling for him, and while she radiates basic decency, nothing about her character is in the realm of the possible. One could say the same for how le Carré plays out the story — he relishes stacking the deck against the big bad Westerners, while coyly eliding the more unsavory aspects of those most wanted men. A liberal political viewpoint is not unwelcome in a spy flick, but a deep message about how innocents get railroaded in the name of justice veers dangerously close to naivete when it unreservedly mourns the fate of a man who is, after all, a confirmed terrorist. The film closes on a betrayal that’s meant to shock and outrage us, but given all the untrustworthiness on display throughout, we can only wonder why cynical operator Bachmann didn’t see it coming. Try as he might to finesse things, even Corbijn can’t do much to make the final twist more plausible.
Still, we hang with all of this because of Hoffman, in his last major role before his untimely death. His usual nasal drawl thinned to a Teutonic rasp, his rumpled jacket hanging loose on his back, looking like death warmed over with three cups of coffee, he’s the most important reason to see this film. This is the best kind of performance, balanced on the knife edge between indulgence and subtlety: Bachmann may be a glum character, but Hoffman doesn’t let that glumness sink into ponderousness. With every snapped command and threat there’s a tight smile, a twinge of humor. “You were exiled to Hamburg?” Martha asks him at one point. “It depends on how you feel about Hamburg,” he smirks. Even as le Carré and Corbijn contrive to martyr his character, Hoffman refuses to take the easy way out, and his final bellow of rage, which would be a hammy showstopper for almost any other actor, is like a single flash of lightning through darkened clouds. A Most Wanted Man might not be the most successful le Carré adaptation, but as we watch Hoffman exit stage left, we can be thankful that it gave a remarkable actor a final chance to shoot off some of that lightning.