Thursday, August 21, 2014


Based on the book by John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man is another of his spy stories that turn on complicated clockwork plotting but play out as deliberately paced character studies. It’s what makes his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a landmark for the genre. In Tomas Alfredson’s masterful 2011 adaptation of that novel, a Cold War-era British spy played by Gary Oldman quietly, methodically maneuvers a mole into the light of day. It’s a tricky, deeply felt work that sits entirely on the shoulders of its characters, watching for the slightest adjustments of body language to reveal undercurrents of emotion and truth.

A Most Wanted Man does something similar with the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles as Günther, a tired German spy stationed in Hamburg who goes about his daily life with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s very good at his job and confident in his conclusions. There’s a quiet moment in which he consults with a United States operative (Robin Wright) at a café. He matter-of-factly takes a flask out of his pocket, pours some liquor into his coffee, and takes a sip, all the while laying out his plan to use an illegal immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) to determine how a professor (Homayoun Ershadi) is sending money from his charity to terrorist groups. It’s risky, but it just might work. He’s so confident, he doesn’t need to hide his functional alcoholism from his colleague.

Director Anton Corbijn, whose last film was the gripping Le Samourai­-esque art house George Clooney assassin movie The American, sets the gears of the plot turning with considered patience. We meet several characters working with skill and precision, playing their parts in parallel plans that converge with the icy grip of Andrew Bovell’s screenplay. There’s a banker (Willem Dafoe), a human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams), and several spies (Daniel Brühl, Nina Hoss, Mehdi Dehbi, Martin Wuttke). It’s all one big high-stakes chess game, people moving pawns into position, hoping to make it to the end with their careers, if not their lives, intact. But with this great cast and excellently controlled direction, the result is merely serviceable.

The espionage thriller moves slowly and confidently through its knotty plotting. Characters trudge about as pieces gradually drop into place. I could appreciate its terse, subtle character work from the ensemble and grimly chilly imagery from cinematographer Benoît Delhomme. But the movie remained firmly on screen. It never grabbed me or pulled me in. I was entirely unmoved and disinterested. There’s geopolitical specificity and lived-in performances, and yet it somehow feels fuzzy. We see actions and reaction, but little to impact the world beyond these characters.

It has to do with the point of view. While Le Carré’s methods of plotting are great for distant Cold War analog spying, making the cat-and-mouse genre pleasures a current War on Terror digital prospect grows disquieting. The film raises important questions without paying much attention. It shows us a broken world of imperfect systems and flawed people given horrible power and great responsibility. And yet it never grapples with this observation beyond the grist for character work.

We sit with the characters on their level, the better to see that these people have remarkable and frightening power. It’s upsetting, but played off as mere plot mechanics. A lawyer is grabbed off the street, thrown into the back of an unmarked van, and held captive. An innocent man never learns his apartment is bugged with hidden cameras. Hoffman’s character says he runs a secret department dedicated to going outside the law to keep Europe safe from terrorists. But his team has the suspects’ best interests at heart. A rival department just wants to spirit them away forever to some undisclosed top-secret interrogation detainment. In the end, we’re supposed to feel disappointment that things didn’t work out the way our leads wanted. It suggests that our civil liberties may be trampled at the slightest whim of an agent, but at least the good spies feel bad while they do it. Cold comfort.

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