The price of betrayal

Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man’

3 minute read
Sacrifices and compromises: Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man" (Photo by Kerry Brown - © 2014 - Roadside Attractions)
Sacrifices and compromises: Willem Dafoe and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man" (Photo by Kerry Brown - © 2014 - Roadside Attractions)

A damp, cold night on the docks in Hamburg, Germany. A dark, disheveled figure climbs up onto the quay and vanishes into the city's Muslim community. But it's not long before he attracts the interest of Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), head of a covert unit of German Intelligence tasked to keep tabs on possible terrorist activity in Hamburg, the former home base of the 9/11 hijackers. What, Bachmann wants to know, is this new arrival up to?

Thus begins Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man, his adaptation of the 2008 John le Carré novel. Finding out the identity, purpose, and motives of this mysterious stranger and why he becomes the "most wanted man" of the title are the problems that drive this absorbing film to its conclusion.

The most recent John le Carré adaptation prior to this one, Tomas Alfredson's 2011 take on the classic novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, seemed to vex a fair number of people. While it was well-regarded by most le Carré aficionados, those unacquainted with his shadowy universe of spies, betrayal, and murky machinations were left generally bewildered, no matter how much they might have enjoyed Gary Oldman's intriguingly understated take on George Smiley. Those confused novitiates had a point. The novel is complex, subtle, and multilayered, qualities that make it an absorbing read but a challenge to distill down into a two-hour motion picture. The BBC did it with marvelous success in a 1979 television miniseries starring Alec Guinness as Smiley (unreservedly recommended to all those frustrated by Alfredson's film), but they had seven hours to work with.

A Most Wanted Man, however, is a much more straightforward narrative that lends itself readily to the screen. That's largely because Bachmann is the center of the film and is such a rich and nuanced character, brought so vividly to life by Hoffman's portrayal, that it's impossible to get lost. Though there are certainly plenty of deceptions and double crosses, and not everything is as it appears to be (this is a spy story, after all), the human element dominates throughout — particularly the very real sacrifices, compromises, and ultimate costs, not only for Bachmann but also for idealistic human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), expatriate British banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), and particularly the title character, the half-Russian, half-Chechen refugee Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin).

One of le Carré's trademark strengths is a keen awareness of the moral ambiguities of the secret world, an ability to illuminate unanswerable ethical dilemmas without lapsing into polemics and preachiness. On the broadest level, A Most Wanted Man is le Carré's riff on the Bush-era practice of "extraordinary rendition." It examines how traditional concepts of civil liberties and proven intelligence tradecraft were cast aside for the sake of an illusory and dubious self-righteous zeal for "security" and vengeful expediency. By the end of the film, le Carré's position is crystal clear. But his genius, and that of Corbijn, Hoffman, and the rest of the cast, is that this film delivers that message not by editorial fiat, but by showing us the terrible price and emotional devastation that such policies exact upon real human beings.

For Judy Weightman's vexed review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, click here. (Full disclosure: The current author is the rabid fan/better-prepared pal referred to in that review. Ms. Weightman declined with thanks his invitation to see A Most Wanted Man.)

For a review of A Wanted Man by Robert Zaller, click here.

What, When, Where

A Most Wanted Man. Anton Corbijn directed. Written by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carré. At Ritz East and selected local theaters (for theaters and times click here).

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