Thursday, July 24, 2014

Another helping of John le Carre

In A Most Wanted Man, author John le Carre shifts his espionage focus to Hamburg and Berlin. With the Cold War receding into memory, le Carre continues to find other milieus in which he can examine the chilly world of men and women who earn their living plying history's back channels.

Director Anton Corbijn tries to respect the tone and intricacies of le Carre's informed imagination, immersing us in a complex story built around German spy Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As head of a special unit, Bachmann spends his time keeping tabs on Hamburg's radical Muslims. He hopes that he can uncover terrorist plots as he moves through a shadowy world that he doesn't always understand. Who could?

We're in a post 9/11 environment: The movie begins several years after Hamburg played home to Mohamed Atta, one of the leaders of the World Trade Center attack.

Not without reason, Bachmann considers himself a savvy guy. He's seen plenty, and he's not likely to be bested by anyone. He's a bit disheveled, but he's knowing and efficient, and has a deep mistrust of bureaucracy -- anyone's.

The movie starts when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen/Russian arrives in Hamburg. A devout Muslim, Issa may be dangerous or maybe he's merely a pawn in someone's plan to lure and catch a bigger fish.

A German immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help Issa gain permanent residency in Germany. They approach a German banker (Willem Dafoe) to gain access to a substantial bank account left by Issa's father, a bad actor in the Russian criminal world.

The movie's cast of characters also includes Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a high-profile spokesman for the German Muslim community, and a cagey CIA agent (Robin Wright), who tries to work her way into Bachmann's plans.

Corbijn (Control and The American) doesn't totally conquer le Carre's complicated plot, the movie's pacing can become turgid, and the story might have been better served with a German actress in the role played by McAdams.

Still, the payoff perfectly reflects le Carre's cynical intelligence, a rueful defeatism that emanates from too keen a knowledge of the many ways in which people betray one another.

I wish it weren't so, but, for me at least, the fact that Hoffman's no longer with us imbued A Man Most Wanted with unintended eeriness, a sense that perhaps, in the end, life trumped any performance the gifted actor could give.

Put another way, it's difficult not to mourn the fact that A Man Most Wanted should have been one more Hoffman movie among many more to come.

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