Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

What Allah Provides 
"No.  Yes.  Maybe"

The last movie Anton Corbijn directed was The American, a pretty good movie about one particular gun-for-hire, in a network of them, that is considering retirement before being retired permanently and against his will. Starring George Clooney, it had the feeling of a Western set in the more rustic parts of Italy and clothed in the dark shades of spy-paranoia (Corbijn's previous film was Control, a bio-pic of singer Ian Stuart and, before that, music videos for the likes of U2 and Metallica) that was only undermined by a last-minute jag of sentimentality and heavy symbolism.

His latest doesn't run too far afield of that genre, an adaptation of John Le Carré's post-9/11 anti-terror study
A Most Wanted Man.  Le Carré wrote the best of the spy novels of the 60's and 70's (still does, in fact), catching attention with "The Spy Who Came From the Cold," his "Smiley/Karla" trilogy—"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Honourable Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People." As he was a former cog in British Intelligence, le Carré wrote of spies realistically as rumpled, foibled functionaries, in stark contrast to the notorious spies of the Bond decade; heads turn when James Bond's supposedly "secret" agent walks into a room, whereas le Carre's could enter and then leave without ever being noticed...or cared about.  He stuttered a bit when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended—his "The Russia House" and "The Tailor of Panama" showed intelligence operatives struggling to maintain their relevance...and operating budgets—but after 9/11, Le Carré, ever the humanist, turned his baleful eye to the gears of government security and how human beings can be buried in an avalanche of metrics, statistics and damnable lies. 

I've always seen his "The Russia House" as an Eastern-bloc version of Casablanca, where "the problems of two little people" not only amount to more than "a hill of beans in this crazy world," but are actually more important than the high-stakes gamesmanship of self-important foreign powers. That's a theme running throughout his books, which has only increased as he's railed against U.S. tactics in the war on terror, where there is more "bully" than "pulpit."

McAdams watches Dobrigyin be caught in the middle
The titular man most wanted is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrigyin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim who has escaped torture and imprisonment and washes up in Hamburg to hide out from his pursuers and lay claim to a fortune banked away by his gangster-father. He is hooked up with a human-rights attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) to secure the funds from banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), who had done business with his father. But Karpov is being watched by a secret anti-terrorist investigation unit headed by Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last completed role before his death from drugs), whose operatives are shadowing Karpov, and deflecting the objections of the more hard-line Hamburg intelligence (led by Rainer Bock).
Bachmann (Hoffman) in his office.  The cluttered cork-board has lately
become a signifier of a crazy person in film-culture.
Bachmann and his team (including Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) are keeping constant track of Karpov—one of the amusing though-lines of the movie is that, however unlikely, you find his operatives in the background of so many scenes, blending in—but don't see him as a terrorist threat, but merely a means to an end. For awhile, they've been tracking Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a publicly moderate Muslim lecturer and philanthropist, who they suspect of funneling money to terrorist groups, and Karpov's inheritance may be just the thing to draw his operation out. For most of the movie, Bachmann works two fronts—out on the streets with his informers and operatives and new recruits and in the boardrooms with the officials and other units, all looking for the "big score" and devote as much time to how they can stab each other in the back as much as their foes.
Bachmann out in the cold
It's an unglamorous, ugly side of espionage, as le Carré always presented it, with secret agendas among the secret agents. Hoffman is brilliant in this, gutted on many levels, a seducer of all sorts, turning his extended network to his aims by exploiting their best hopes and away from their worst fears, while he assuages himself with a steady stream of booze and cigarette smoke. Lies are at the heart of every spy story—of the benign facade covering evil intent and the exploitation of good intent to accomplish it, even at the risk of expunging the good in the erasing of evil.

And that's the tragedy of it, as le Carré has always presented it. You can't make a better world by simply eliminating the worst elements of it. You have to replace it with something better, or evil will simply exist in another form, and we will end up making the same mistakes again and again.

Because what's the use of Intelligence, if you don't learn anything?

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