A Most Wanted Man

Posted by Joel Copling on July 24, 2014

There is, indeed, a thin line between "good" and "bad," but for the characters in "A Most Wanted Man," that line resembles steel wire more than it does a simple clothesline: It holds--or has the capability of holding--much weight. In that weight, here we find that the thin line between two extremes carries a bevy of harsh truths, harsher betrayals, and a mournful undercurrent to both that goes beyond mere foundation of genre. Sure, we have that foundation: a novel by master spy novelist John Le Carre that has been adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell. It features a slow burn that dictates the mountain of tension built up in director Anton Corbijn and editor Claire Simpson's deliberate pacing.

But the thing that jolts the viewer into attention is the aching humanity at the film's core. This is sometimes rattlingly moving stuff, detailing the human cost of a post-9/11 espionage agency's determination to remain in the background, pulling the proverbial strings to keep the balance. This is Gunther Bachmann's (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, powerful in his final lead role) occupation, the thing for which, it seems, he lives. Bachmann's quite the personality. He always seems primed for explosion--or, perhaps, implosion--at the slightest provocation. Indeed, it's a shock late in the picture to discover that someone of Bachmann's frayed-nerves disposition to occupy a living space; it would be much more expected that he sleeps in his office or his car or even the surveillance that he and his team (Irna and Maximilian, played by Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl) use on their even-more-covert-than-covert operations. He also, to his disadvantage, does not truly believe of life the ideal held in the first paragraph.

Their newest operation is already under-way when we pick up with these characters. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) has staggered into Hamburg, Germany, brutally tortured and clearly suffering from PTSD. He's on watchlists everywhere, having been a member of a militant jihadist group. Bachmann and his crew know they must apprehend Karpov, but before anything happens, in walks Abigail Richter (Rachel McAdams), attorney for a social justice group (She represents clients whose homeland poses a threat to them). Richter believes Karpov deserves the chance to collect an inheritance and escape to a new life, despite his crimes; Bachmann believes Richter is in too deep. Her representation of this particular client, says he, is proof that she is now sympathetic to the threat.

Their mission changes gears when Karpov decides that the money his father, a murderous terrorist, left him is "dirty money" and wants to get rid of it. Bachmann also wants to find Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a supposedly legitimate businessman whose many charities, Bachmann believes, are fronts for laundered blood money. They use Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), with whose father Karpov's own had a business deal before their deaths and whose bank can handle the transaction (Karpov's inheritance will be split among Abdullah's charities and organizations, one of which is the central hub of his laundry operation).

If it sounds complicated, it is, and Bovell's screenplay weaves expertly through a maze of ethical and moral decisions. The snag is a woman from the American embassy in Munich (Robin Wright) who has her own plans for this whole situation. The last 15 minutes of "A Most Wanted Man" are masterful in both their tightly wound suspense (The signing of a document has rarely been so nerve-wracking) and their pitiless, truly merciless outlook on the unpredictable underworld of the secretive. Whatever slightly annoying tendencies that the narrative slips in--an attraction between two characters that comes to nothing, the conclusion that is both pitiless and, perhaps, foregone due to familiarity with the spy genre--cannot compete with the harsh reality of being a spy with a particularly held worldview.

Film Information

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gunther Bachmann), Rachel McAdams (Abigail Richter), Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov), Willem Dafoe (Tommy Brue), Homayoun Ershadi (Abdullah), Nina Hoss (Irna Frey), Daniel Bruhl (Maximilian), Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan).

Directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carre.

Rated R (language).

121 minutes.

Released on July 25, 2014.