Sunday, September 14, 2014

'A Most Wanted Man' (2014) directed by Anton Corbijn

Despair looms large over A Most Wanted Man.  As the last lead role of Philip Seymour Hoffman there's a pang of emotion as appears, every minute that ticks by one less until he'll never be in a new film again.  But leaving such extratextual concerns aside, that this is a deeply bleak movie about broken people half-heartedly running through routines, and, given that this is an adaptation of a John le Carré novel, that routine is spycraft.

Set in modern Hamburg, the titular wanted man is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin).  He's a Chechen Muslim fleeing the wars in his home country. He's traumatised by his brutall tortured at the hands of Russian intelligence, his body a map of scars and cigarette burns. The Russians inform the Hamburg spy community that Karpov is a dangerous extremist, a one man terror threat.  

The Hamburg spy community, still smarting with residual guilt that the 9/11 attacks were planned from the city, fixates upon Karpov, desperate to acquire him for their own ends. Prime among them is Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an veteran spy running a small-scale extrajudicial intelligence operation. Unbeholden to any state he does the tasks that the law prevents the other agencies doing.  

Soon we're wrapped up in a knotty mess of various agencies jockeying for turf, planting bugs and cameras everywhere, clandestine meetings in smoky cafes and people being black-bagged off the street and bundled into vans.  As in every le Carré adaptation the film all but demands close attention, lest you forget the differing motivations of the numerous shadowy groups of besuited figures.

At the core of A Most Wanted Man is an ethical battle between cinematic pleasure and real-world politics. Though reality is dialled up, Bachmann's spy team is still roughly analogous to Mission: Impossible (or any number of action movie spy crews).  It's thrilling to watch them work; be they in a race against time to plant bugs and camera before their target becomes suspicious, exchanging under the table information through cigarette packets or stalking people through the busy Hamburg streets.  Corbijn's spycraft is hardly sexy, but there's a Germanic care and precision to it that's easy to admire.

Taken in isolation the actions of our lead characters are pretty damn far from heroic: a litany of invasions of privacy, manipulations of trust and mental torture (backed by the subtle threat of physical torture).  Yet by dint of the narrative focus these are nonetheless our heroes, audience identification with them cemented by our shared perception of the world through a camera lens, in their case security footage and bugs, in our case a cinema screen. This identification gives us a vicarious thrill. Wow, what if I was a spy?  How cool would that be?

The notion of a secret world existing in parallel with our own is a seductive fictional device. Thus, A Most Wanted Man is essentially Harry Potter for grown-ups.  Both exploit the same suspicion that there's something going on around us that we're not privy to, and both feature characters that become sucked into this secret world.   Though cloaked in gritty reality, spycraft may as well be wizardry for all the relevance it has to the average viewer, andso  despite our best efforts we end up rooting for this team.

Pushing back against that is the deepening realisation that our cool, sexy, interesting and smart protagonists are monsters.  Corbijn and le Carré are at pains to emphasise that not only are our hero's methods ridiculously unethical, but ineffectual and without purpose. Spies are repeatedly quizzed as to why they're doing this, always falling back on the meaningless mantra that they're "making the world a safer place".  

The intelligence community is thus exposed as simply going through the motions.  They need to be seen to be doing something to justify their existence, and victimising traumatised asylum seekers and innocent members of the public is better than twiddling their thumbs. Their lack of ideological passion is contrasted with the focussed aims of their enemies, who are at least fighting for something they believe in.  As Walter Sobchak said, "Dude, at least it's an ethos!".

Our hero's lack of focus suffuses the film with nihilism, expressed not only their actions but in Corbijn's desaturated visual style.  Our heroes are constantly placed in boxes within boxes, whether it be in cramped basement headquarters, booths in cafes, glass meeting rooms within offices or vans in car parks.  This, coupled with a repeated motif of characters being obscured: behind smoked glass, blocked by scenery or behind opaque plastic sheets works to separate these people from the 'real world', underlining their removal from reality as we know it. 

When they do break into the real world it's presented as a chaotic, senseless mess. So, for example Bachmann's carefully ordered world completely breaks down when confronted by a packed, sweaty nightclub.  The implication quickly becomes that these people are less fighting to make the world a safer place and more to construct a reality that justifies their continued existence.  

The battleground for this debate takes place over the haggard, almost albino, features of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Chain-smoking, glugging booze by the bottleful and with lidded, rheumy red-eyes he looks desperately sick.  These are the physical manifestations of his increasingly cynical view of his role in the world, something contrasted against his lint-free, perfectly coiffed CIA counterpart.  It's not a career defining performance, but it's one hell of a swansong.

A Most Wanted Man isn't a perfect movie (Rachel McAdams is totally miscast), but it's got political, moral and ethical complexity baked into its DNA.  Corbijn walks the tightrope between these poles with skill, aided by le Carré's rightly cynical tone. A quiet, sinister and darkly compelling piece of cinema.


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