A Most Wanted Man (2014)
The catastrophic intelligence failures of the early 21st century are the gloomy dossier of A Most Wanted Man, the latest screen adaption from master espionage scribe John Le Carré’s murky universe of drained operatives, fathomless motives and fragmented nationalism. When a suspiciously furtive Chechen extremist Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is detected in Hamburg alarm begins to whine, but exhausted spymaster Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, the dictionary definition of crumpled) urges his superiors to stand back and let him shadow this new asset, assuring them that he could lead them to richer targets. Local CIA handler Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) convinces the powers that be to grant Gunther’s dishevelled request, as Issa’s purpose in Hamburg becomes more mysterious after he is retained by local human-rights activist Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) who takes a protective shine to his tortured history. Under the observation of Bachmann’s off-the-books operation Karpov seeks to retain a lucrative inheritance from the vault of shady local banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) for purposes or purpose unknown, with pressure to prevent another atrocity all the chess pieces in the agency shadow-play must grapple with their blood streaked past and previous betrayals….
After the funereal atmosphere of his bio-pic debut Control and the existential Eurocrime frigidity of the mis-firing The American I’m happy to report that A Most Wanted Man is videographer turned director Anton Corbijn’s best film to date, a sparse complexion of brooding angst and decrepit morals soaked in a sordid neon-lit Hamburg. Like most video directors graduating to features the film has a distinctive and carefully considered colour palette, with a fine line in architectural affinity to the characters credo’s and the plots symbolic secretions, it’s his most assured work to date which maintains a mood and pallor befitting of its rather squalid nerve centre. The prestigious cast is uniformly excellent with Robin Wright on near-perfect form, for a while I was worrying that Rachael McAdams was going to blow the entire operation but as her part grows and becomes entangled in machinations beyond her comprehension her presence rose to the occasion. It’s a film for adults which does little to pander to wandering attention spans as the plot snakes through the competing bureaus of various agencies, human hubris and pride eclipsing any shared ideological purpose in a recently partitioned world, as the threat of Islamic terror is less important than the settling of old scores or of preserving one’s fiefdom and operational prestige. It’s a brave new confusingly interconnected world, where the old certainties of right versus left, of communist versus capitalist disintegrates under the pressure of never failing on such a globally visible level again.
If you prefer your clandestine celluloid festooned with exotic Caribbean locations, seductive supermodels, lethal gadgets or slumming international character actors adopting a lucrative villainous pay-check then you’d best wait for the next Bond which supposedly starts shooting at the end of the year, as with Le Carré’s celebrated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy this evisceration of the world of espionage is as glamorous as a used syringe in a Dresden schoolyard. It’s a film concerned with cloak and dagger tradecraft, about shadowing targets through gloomy rain-swept streets, about levering intelligence and blackmail through wiretaps and sexual honey-traps, of traversing a labyrinth of murky motives and concealed concerns. The moral and mental toils that such work weighs upon individuals is shaded in the shielded performances and oppressive cinematography, with no one to trust and potential unintended consequences making the urge to do the right thing as dangerous as letting potential assets to evade the grid and disappear into the background chatter of civilian life. It’s not a film obliquely concerned with the modern spectres of Snowden or Assange and their nuclear revelations, as with other Le Carré material the film is chiefly concerned with the environmental and emotional infrastructure of the spy-world as is slowly bleeds its operatives of their humanity and ideological purity, compromising their humanity under a crushing bureaucratic dirge.
Naturally the entire film has a particularly dense sad and gloomy cloud hanging over it beyond its narrative nodes, as it is the last assignment of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman smuggled back to the editing labs before his passing earlier in the year. Sure we’ll be seeing him in the remaining instalments of the Hunger Games franchise but in a much reduced, supporting character role, in A Most Wanted Man the film pivots on his desperate attempt to atone for past betrayals and preserve a shard of decency in this shadowy world of feints, subterfuge, and petty poisonous politics, he (unlike the novel) is the central figure of the tale, the moral nexus suspended in the twilight of understanding more than he appreciates and less than he suspects. Knowing the performance was crafted under the aegis of a heroin habit only gives it a meta-level melody, the character himself is an exhausted and isolated figure, with cowled eyes and three days stubble growth he’s a disembodied shade whose forward momentum is powered only by an unholy concoction of scotch and cigarettes. Look out for a terrific closing track from Tom Waits which appropriately croons over the end titles, a sequence I sat through the entirety of as one final, modest tribute to one of the finest actors of his generation – this is quite a beautifully disarrayed swan song;