Wednesday 13 August 2014

Movie Review: A Most Wanted Man (2014)

A contemporary counter-terrorism drama, A Most Wanted Man adapts the John le Carré novel into a serviceable film. While Philip Seymour Hoffman's final performance is a rich achievement, the rest of the film idles among too many characters stuck in a singular mode.

A mysterious Chechen man named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives illegally in Hamburg, Germany, and immediately attracts the attention of the authorities. Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads a Hamburg-based anti-terrorist unit tasked with infiltrating terrorist cells, and he places Issa under observation. Günther is also interested in the activities of Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a seemingly distinguished Muslim leader who advocates peace while raising funds for charities. The problem is that a sliver of all the money raised by Dr. Faisal always seems to be diverted to terrorist causes. The CIA's Berlin station chief Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) keeps a watchful eye on Günther's activities.

Günther takes a risk and resists the pressure to detain and interrogate Issa, and instead pursues the connections that can lead to bigger conspirators. Issa makes contact with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a young lawyer who helps immigrants settle in Germany. Issa wants Annabel's assistance to approach the private bank controlled by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), where Issa's father, a former Russian general, has parked a fortune that now belongs to Issa. With a large amount of money at play, Günther finds himself confronting a shadowy transaction that may be as simple as a young man distributing his father's wealth to charities, or as deadly as terrorist financing for the next big attack.

A Most Wanted Man is Philip Seymour Hoffman's final completed performance, and he is the main reason to watch the film. He delivers a tortured performance as Günther, a man uncomfortable with the new rules of war in the post-9/11 era. Hoffman wears Günther's emotional burdens like a heavy winter jacket, a master warrior of the spy world who has lost too many soldiers and yet tries to adhere to the old rules of patient observation, surveillance, nurturing informants and network infiltration.

But this is Hamburg, where the 9/11 plot was hatched and developed. Government types in Berlin are agitated and eager to quickly stamp out characters like Issa, and the CIA is all too willing to help by bundling people off to black interrogation sites. Günther has to fend off the rabid dogs demanding action while first ensuring that he does not lose Issa, and then proving that the patient approach can pay dividends. With Günther as the one character grappling with complex realpolitik trade-offs that could potentially cost many innocent lives, not to mention his career, Hoffman is flawless.

Unfortunately for the film, none of the other characters are nearly as complex. Issa, Annabel, Brue, Martha and Dr. Faisal are predictable and monochromatic, and in a case of too many characters causing a shortage of development space, none of them undergo any form of interesting evolution. The book provided breathing room for the relationship between Issa and Annabel to deepen, and rounded Brue with a complex backstory. Despite a two hour running time, this is all sacrificed by director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell, leaving Hoffman to fight a lonely battle to maintain momentum.

As can be expected with any le Carré adaptation, A Most Wanted Man is slow paced, more concerned with mood, gloom and pessimism than the traditional trappings of a thriller. The film delivers infrequent jolts of activity, but generally just soaks in a grey aura resigned to an eternal conflict between opposing forces locked in a shadow war. The causes, labels and tactics may change, but for men like Günther, with every skirmish a little piece of the soul dies a tortured death.

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