By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
It’s not easy to adapt John le Carré’s novels into films. The last few attempts – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “The Tailor of Panama” – didn’t exactly tear up box offices (though “Tailor” is a wicked little gem of a movie). But with “A Most Wanted Man,” there’s a good chance that because it’s more straightforward and accessible than its recent predecessors, more audiences are going to take to it.
It’s a crackling version of his 2008 novel about changes in the world of spying after 9/11. But, a word of warning to those who think it’s an action film, it has a slow pace, there are no explosions, there’s one good foot chase and a lot of people say a lot of words.
Set in Hamburg, it’s a look inside an operation run by chain-smoking Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man who confides only to those he can trust that he heads “an anti-terror unit that most people don’t know about.” It’s a small outfit, with the dedicated Gunther assisted by his loyal right-hand woman Erna (Nina Hoss) and a handful of equally dedicated agents and informants.
He’s first seen on the trail of Dr. Abdullah, a Muslim author who might be funneling money to terrorist organizations, even as he calls for peace on the lecture circuit. Gunther isn’t alone in this, although he’d like to be. There’s also interest in Abdullah from the German police and from the CIA.
But because this is le Carré territory, and le Carré likes density in his work, we soon meet a mysterious, scrawny, bearded, hoodie-wearing fellow named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has just arrived in Hamburg, is a known Jihadist, and might be there to cause trouble.
Either that or, as Issa tells Annabell Richter (Rachel McAdams), the self-appointed do-gooder lawyer who goes around assisting “stateless people,” he’s there because he can’t go back to Russia, where he was tortured. But is she really a lawyer? Or is she, as the usually calm but suddenly irate Gunther describes her, a “social worker for terrorists?”
But there’s no sitting back and wondering about who these people are or what they do; more and more of them keep getting introduced. There’s by-the-books Hamburg bank manager Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), among whose safety deposit boxes is one containing a boatload of Euros under the name of Issa’s father, a known terrorist and murder. There’s also CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), visiting from the States and checking in on Gunther, Issa and Dr. Abdullah.
This is a film filled with people following other people, while different people eavesdrop on different people. There’s a lack of trust between Germans and other Germans, and between Americans and Germans, and everyone’s set on finding out who is or isn’t a terrorist. As the story increases in complications, anyone could easily be made anyone else’s pawn. Traps are set, evasions are made, tensions soar.
Although the script eventually reveals more about the background of Issa than any other character, the most fascinating person in the film is Gunther, marvelously played by the late Hoffman as an honorable man who is at once quiet but fierce, weary and frustrated, someone who’s tormented by what seems to be a shady past.
This is not only easier to follow than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” it’s a lot more entertaining, especially when the supposed good guys calmly explain that they do what they do “to make the world a safer place,” no matter how much they have to betray or deceive practically everyone around them.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
A MOST WANTED MAN
Written by Andrew Bovell; directed by Anton Corbijn
With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright
Movie review: Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in excellent A Most Wanted Man’
By Ed Symkus