Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 26, 2014 1:59 pm 
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Stagecraft and spycraft

Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man is, like any movie from a John Le Carré novel, a much simplified version of its intricate source. But the essentials are there, so the story makes sense, and the same kind of sense as Le Carré's book, even with much depth of background and character excised. This is one of Le Carré's angriest depictions of the post-9/11 world, a world frankly wrecked by American ham-handedness and brutality and a short-circuiting of the old patient methods of espionage. It's also a complex, understated thriller.

We are in Hamburg, where Mohammed Atta planned 9/11, and German intelligence is on the super-alert to make sure nothing like that happens again. When a simplified big-movie title proclaims that at the outset, we could be lining up for another Bourne adventure. But then we get the strong but muted elegance of Anton Corbijn's unobtrusive handheld camera and we know we're in different hands. Günther Bachmann, head of a secret German antiterrorism unit monitoring the Hamburg Islamic community, a pivotal figure, now totally dominates the action -- but since he's played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can complain? This is Hoffman's screen farewell, and a bittersweet reminder of what a great actor the man was. Bachmann is a worn-out, embittered, but driven figure. His entire network in Beirut was blown, and he is in Hamburg either as punishment or to redeem himself. Either way, for Bachmann the stakes are high.

Another of the surprisingly successful and elegantly managed concessions to mainstream moviemaking is language and accent. Apart from a few words of Arabic, everyone here speaks English, including three German characters played by Americans: Hoffman; Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter, an idealistic young lawyer devoted to rescuing political refuges; and Willem Dafoe as Tommy Brue, the second-generation owner-manager of a small English bank based in Hamburg. These characters are given equal weight with Bachman in the book, and there was English intelligence too, completely missing. Just imagine elaborate back-stories and then, in your zen meditation, make them disappear. But it works.

Into this mix comes Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin, too good-looking and appealing for the original character), a battered, traumatized, solemn, stubborn, silent young man who's escaped from Russian and Turkish prisons, where he was brutally tortured. (Dobrygin speaks English too, but unlike Hoffman and Dafoe, with a real accent.) Karpov arrives in Hamburg stateless and penniless and is quickly spotted by Bachmann's people and local German intelligence head Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock). Mohr is sure he's a terrorist and wants to pounce on him; Bachman knows he isn't and wants to follow him. The story is a continual struggle to protect sources and leads. And Bachmann must also spar with and fend off a CIA big shot who's popped over from Berlin, Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, nicely understated for this kind of role), who seems willing to cooperate but whom he does not trust. Karpov gets in touch with Annabel Richter, who acts as his intermediary with Brue, who unknowingly (the secret account was set up by his father) holds a lot of money Karpov has come to claim.

Karpov turns out to be the son of a wealthy gangster KGB officer who raped his Chechen mother and stashed ill-gotten millions through Brue's father's money-laundering program for Russian clients, called "Lipizzaner accounts" for the horses that start out black and turn white with age. (Perhaps Le Carré gave Karpov the name of a chess master to suggest he's only a pawn in the game.)

There's a young student, Jamal (Belgian-born actor Mehdi Dehbi), who's Bachmann's "eyes and ears" in the Islamic community. He turns out to be the son of Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi), a well-off figure in the community with a reputation for piety and good works. Abdullah is suspected by Bachmann of secretly siphoning off a small but constant percentage of his trading funds to a Middle Eastern agency that's a cover for terrorist activities. Karpov doesn't know this. He has had a change of heart and decided he doesn't want his father's money. But Bachmann and his faithful sidekick Irna Frey (the superb Nina Hoss, and another authentic German accent) and their team, who bug everything and everyone, manipulate Annabel (whom everyone is in love with; but that's soft-pedaled in the film) to persuade Karpov to claim the money but immediately donate it to a good cause -- Abdullah.

Le Carré's ultimate theme is the morality of the old methods of espionage versus the immorality of the new ones dominated by post-9/11, post-Bush America, which would rather kill or lock up and forget suspicious persons, thus cutting off the pathway to information. Bachmann sees Karpov as a way to catch Abdullah, and Abdullah is a link to an as yet unknown terrorist mastermind. "It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark," rumbles Hoffman in that fake German accent that should be grating but, because it's Hoffman, we can't get enough of.

Like Our Kind of Traitor (2010), the novel Le Carré wrote after A Most Wanted Man (2008), Issa's and Brue's and Bachmann's and Annabel's intertwined story draws to a long, slow, and excruciatingly suspenseful conclusion, which, like everything else, is greatly telescoped and speeded up in Andrew Bovell's deft screenplay. Yet it keeps the book's essential feel, expressed in the long howl of fury uttered by Bachmann. As Hoffman, playing the frustrated, infuriated, defeated Bachman, leaves his car and walks away, we bid a symbolic farewell to Philip Seymour Hoffman too.

John Le Carré acknowledged the compromises of accent and casting in Corbijn's film, as well as the greatness, warmth, and intelligence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a recent New York Times article viewers of the film might gain from reading. He mentions Daniel Brühl, in a tiny part here. Brühl is one of various great German actors buried in a cast that has nothing but depth despite the way Hoffman, with his belligerent swagger, his constant stage business dominated by coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol all too realistically partaken of, continually dominates the film and is its bitter, angry, knowing heart.

As Le Carré's Times piece points out, Corbijn is a European and a polymath, notable in music and as a photograpaher before his now "iconic" black and white feature debut, Control, a pitch-perfect life of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division. Critics were not as friendly toward his stylized sophomore effort The American, with George Clooney as a professional assassin. The new film is a compromise because it is more mainstream. But it sacrifices none of the artistry and intelligence Corbijn showed before.

A Most Wanted Man, 121 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2014 and opened in US cinemas 25 July 2014. It comes to France and the UK in September.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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