A Most Wanted Man

Adapted from John Le Carré’s book of the same name, A Most wanted Manis a slow-paced spy thriller, which takes as its central themes the West’s anxiety over Islamic fundamentalists and America’s policy of extraordinary rendition in the wake of 9/11. It is set in Hamburg where, in fact, Mohammed Atta lived and plotted, undetected by the German secret service, before he masterminded the plans to blow up the World Trade Centre. Determined never to let a similar terrorist slip though their fingers again, the Germans have set up a super-secret intelligence unit.

At the head of the unit is Günther Bachman, a perfectly cast, dishevelled Philip Seymour-Hoffman, chain-smoking and drinking his way through what became his last movie. And what a terrific performance he puts in, as a disillusioned man, betrayed in Beirut and relegated to Hamburg, nevertheless devoted to his job. Surrounded by a small but devoted team, he is on the trail of the cash that funds militant Islamic organisations and he thinks he has something on Mohammed Abdulla (Humayoun Ershadi), a wealthy philanthropist – ‘a good man who has a little bad in him’. 

He is under great pressure from the official secret service boys, for whom he has neither respect nor time (the feeling is mutual), to move in and arrest Mohammed. Bachmann, a human being as well as a spy has no desire to ruin someone’s life on a suspicion, although I am not sure whether the scene where he ruffles his informer Jamal’s hair, as he exhorts him not to give up his role, is a sign of his empathy or latent homosexuality. An opportunity to obtain the proof he so desperately requires arises when a half-Russian, half-Chechen illegal immigrant surfaces, seeking both asylum and his inheritance. 

Issa’s motives for asylum are unclear – is he here for the money or is he part of a terrorist network in the making? Perhaps this lack of clarity is intended, but it is as strange lapse in the plot that no one ever asks him WHY he’s in Germany and WHAT he intends to do with his money. It is, by the way, a great relief to see a real Russian playing a Russian in the person of Grigoriy Dobrygin, a welcome change from western actors putting on cod accents, although the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast.. Not that Seymour-Hoffman’s is at all bad, and in all other ways he is perfect, but Willem Dafoe playing a German banker didn’t do it for me. It makes me mad when there are so many good German actors out there, but that’s Hollywood for you I guess.

Bachmann and his team soon entangle the players – the banker and the rich-girl human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachael MacAdams) – in Issa’s drama in their own web of intrigue. But the CIA are now involved in the form of too-beautiful-to-be-true agent, Robin Wright, looking remarkably similar to Mrs Underwood, bar the change of hair colour. As ever the CIA seem to call the shots and hold the trump cards. 

Le Carré, or his real-life alter ego David Cornwall, was in British intelligence and was posted to Hamburg. One of the great things about his books and the resulting films is the departure from the James Bond and Jason Bourne genre: this is a depiction of realpolitik, don’t forget! The real life of spies – and I do know quite a few – is much more about intelligence gathering and endless hours sitting around watching suspects, just as Bachmann and his team do here. Corbijn creates a tense, albeit slow, build up to the sting, allowing time for the audience to develop sympathies with the protagonists and to care about the outcome.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tortured Bachmann, addicted to booze and smokes, is a heartrending portrayal of the man whose traits he shared in life. But the film somehow lacks a bit of the class that makes a really great movie, Seymour-Hoffman notwithstanding. So – a fitting swansong in a good enough movie; a shame it wasn’t one that would have become a classic, had it not been his final curtain.

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