Film adaptations of John Le Carré’s books have already enjoyed some praise here at the RBC (e.g., see Keith’s reviews of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). In this weekend’s movie recommendation, we turn to another European spy caper in a more recent film from 2014, A Most Wanted Man.
In one of his final performances before his death last year, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a grizzled operative working for German secret intelligence. His unit applies unconventional—and only rarely ethical—methods to secure information about terrorist groups. Bachmann is haunted by the specter of a monumentally failed past operation, and the pain lingers in his every step. Unlike the cliché this evokes (see my review of In the Line of Fire), Hoffman plays the role with a studious lack of any hint of self-forgiveness. He smokes and drinks relentlessly, and he assumes that the blame for errors beyond his control is entirely his own.
Bachmann learns of the illegal entry into Germany of a mysterious Chechen refugee named Karpov who has ties to local terrorist groups. Bachmann sees an opportunity to leverage Karpov’s connections and catch bigger fish. This is his team’s specialty: play the long game, develop assets, and exploit high-risk scenarios. It doesn’t take long before Karpov’s connections lead Bachmann to a medium-level player—a banker who Bachmann knows, if played correctly, could land him in the lap of a much, much higher player in the terrorist network.
But, as is commonly the case in Le Carré storylines, the ingenuity and intrigue of the adversary you know is rarely as disarming as from the one you don’t. In both Tinker, Tailor and Spy Who Came in, the protagonist’s own organization can be just as much of an obstruction as the foes they pursue. Here, it’s not just Bachmann’s superiors who lay these obstacles; it’s also those reliably pesky Americans, represented by Robin Wright as the embassy agent Martha Sullivan. At this point, Wright has become closely associated with spare delivery and icy glares that can switch instantaneously into a warm—yet terrifyingly insincere—smile. Aside from the fact that her hair has been dyed black, the only distinguishing feature from Claire Underwood is Sullivan’s obtuse narrow-mindedness. Where Bachmann patiently plays chess with the pieces arranged before him, Sullivan impetuously minimizes risk by eliminating pawns without looking at the pieces lying in wait. And to the untrained American eye, the value and risk posed by each piece is difficult to identify.
Karpov hopes to locate a shady banker named Tommy Brue, played by Willem Dafoe, to relieve a long-standing personal burden. Aiding Karpov in this quest is the determined and fierce lawyer Annabel Richter, played by Rachel McAdams. Neither Brue nor Richter has much of a sense of the import of their company, but Bachmann’s involvement in Karpov’s affairs makes clear that they are instrumental figures in the game of chess.
Le Carré adaptations certainly do have similar themes that unite them, yet they remain impressively taut and varied when set against one another. Anton Corbijn’s direction of A Most Wanted Man is especially noteworthy for the many ways we come to sympathize with Bachmann’s plan, which is neither solely a character study nor a tense game of cat-and-mouse (for another example of Hoffman working in a similar register and quality of film, see my review of Doubt). On the one hand, it’s a little too smarting to watch Hoffman depict the pain of a man turning to whiskey as he is still waking up, or the way his eyebrows droop as he lights yet another cigarette. Yet instead of spinning him as a victimized has-been searching for redemption, on the other hand the feel of Wanted Man still veers away from being a riveting he-said-she-said power-play, too. Instead, this film is about two styles of problem-solving, both of which are addled with despair and anxiety: Bachmann, with his deliberate calculations, does his best to appraise risks and act accordingly; Sullivan, however, obdurately refuses to countenance even the slightest error and forecloses risks from escalating to begin with.
This is the kind of role Hoffman was best at, and his supporting cast is up to the task of keeping up.