Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, or read it below.
Months after his untimely death in February of this year, the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to capture the imaginations and hearts of moviegoers. This is clear from his first moments on screen in A Most Wanted Man, the latest film adaptation of a John Le Carré espionage thriller. Set in post 9-11 Germany, it trades militant Islamism for Communism in a neo Cold War combat between the West and The Rest. Hoffmann is Günther Bachmann, a German operative in a dark force functioning in deep cover. He must unravel and counteract a potential threat posed by a Muslim Chechen torture victim who is seeking to connect with an articulate intellectual interlocutor. This interlocutor may or may not be financially implicated in money laundering ventures bankrolling arms purchases for nefarious purposes. Given the contemporary geopolitical situation, little about the plot is surprising. It is predictable, with righteously motivated quasi-simpatico villains and flawed would-be heroes, Le Carre’s formula. What holds viewer attention are the ways in which characters interact in what can seem yet another cynically played high stakes game of chess with the ‘Free World’ as its prize.
Consistent with Le Carrés vision, we are frequently left wondering who is free, if anyone. The entities arrayed in A Most Wanted Man, are local, national and global. They are caught in ceaseless competition between separate security services ostensibly engaged in a common purpose. But they are unrelentingly as ruthless in their internal rivalries with one another as with their state and non-state adversaries. The story inevitably involves finance capital and its role in making all things possible in this case a means for Willem Dafoe to showcase his penchant for moral ambiguity. Homayun Ershadi of Kite Runner fame is a puzzling presence. Robin Wright exemplifies American assurance and is almost as arresting as Hoffmann in her appearances as the face of a still very strong superpower projecting itself.
Le Carré is especially good at complicating characters by conferring upon them crises of conscience. Much like Tinker Tailor’s George Smiley, Bachmann recognizes that the other side has legitimate grievances and never loses sight of this fact while doing his duty. He does not think himself or his job virtuous, only nastily necessary and is all too aware of his own flaws and foibles, reminding himself of his failings whenever others are not ensuring that they do not escape his or their consciousness.
Bachmann has many enemies: His own doubts, his opponents’ capacities to make mayhem, and the sinister certitude of crusading colleagues and compatriots. This quality of self-questioning keeps our attention and moves the film along even when talk overrides action sequences. A Most Wanted Man is not so much a whodunit as a how to deal with it. Even so, it must be read carefully. What is being communicated when a central character whose function is to counsel interfaith tolerance and dialogue is exposed as an agent fueling hostilities? What does that say about those sincerely pursuing peace through communication?
Bachmann is the foil for the spy who understands himself and others to be going through the motions of saving the world when there are no winners or losers, but we who watch may draw different conclusions. The film runs the real risk of reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as inscrutable “others” who are implacable foes of non-Muslims. Le Carré succeeds at humanizing his protagonists and antagonists, but we as viewers owe it to ourselves and them to demystify his ordinary every day subjects, not as rogues in sleeper cells waiting to awaken and pounce upon innocents in subways, markets or shopping malls, but as regular people, a minority of whom may well at times resort to extreme measures in response to perceived provocations. After all most people are just trying to live their lives.