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A Most Wanted Man: The Zen of Spydom

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By Jacob Mertens. 

At some point in watching modern spy films—be they centered around James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, et al.—viewers can lose sight of the fact that being a spy is a job. As with any job, moments of exhilaration are matched with moments of mundanity, and a routine sets in that can rouse a a mechanical efficiency. Indeed, certain actions, like tailing a suspect or mollifying an asset, become second nature and seem to require little conscious thought at all. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, beyond the pure fascination of watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swan song in cinema, is that the film captures that rote nature of being a spy so effortlessly. Adapted from John Le Carré’s novel of the same name, Man emulates the author’s penchant for crafting slowburn thrillers, and while spying is portrayed as something pointedly quotidian, there is still a subtle intensity that builds with each sequence. Amidst the film’s gathering maelstrom though, Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann remains a stolid figure within the clandestine world of counter-terrorism, a man who reacts to events as they unfold rather than trying to instigate great change on his own. All the while, the bureaucracy surrounding Bachmann seeks to make waves. Through this contrast, the film underlines a moral ambiguity in the work of being a spy and illustrates how ambition can become a blunt instrument that does more harm than good.

Most Wanted 2The plot of A Most Wanted Man seems dense at first, but this has more to do with narrative technique than an inherently complex chain of events. To that point, the film favors a tacit understanding of story developments and back-stories, avoiding expositional dialogue and beginning the film sans preamble. Additionally, Man uses elliptical editing to cut off relevant parts of the story and instead encourages the audience to piece things together as they go. This imbues an otherwise lucid storyline with an uncertainty befitting the turmoil of spying in a post-9/11 world. Therein, Bachmann and his team—a small counter-terrorism task force based in Hamburg, Germany—seek to take down an esteemed and outwardly moderate Islamic leader, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who is suspected of secretly funneling charity funds to terrorist outfits. Simultaneously, a Chechen refuge from Russia by the name of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who Interpol believes to be an escaped militant jihadist, arrives in Germany and sets off a number of red flags. Bachmann keeps tabs on both men, and though the film does not explicitly show them to be connected, the two subjects are inevitably set on a converging path.

The bulk of the film’s action centers on Bachmann investigating Karpov, while his survey on Abdullah appears to have mostly taken place before the film began. This makes for an intuitive choice, because Karpov is by far the more vulnerable of the two men. In fact, Karpov’s potential innocence introduces the film’s principle moral dilemma, wherein German and American bureaucrats stand to make an example out of Karpov through any allegations they can make stick to him, baseless or not. Bachmann, feeling his superiors breathing down his neck, buys for time and ultimately turns the situation to his advantage and looks to use Karpov to go after Abdullah. In the process, he bends assets to his will not through force but through his own calming influence, and waits for events to fall into place, resigned to the limits of his own control. Following Bachmann’s example, his team likewise maintains a steadfast composure throughout A Man Most Wanted. In scenes in which Karpov is shadowed, spies are not shown as pursuing him so much as naturally existing in the frame, like they were always there to begin with. And when Karpov’s lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), is captured by the team in order to use her sway on Karpov to manipulate his actions, she is not interrogated or coerced into helping. Instead, Bachmann and fellow team member Irna Frey (Nina Hoss) simply speak with her in succinct tête-à-têtes, spanning over several hours, in which they gradually give Richter a greater sense of context and allay her reservations. When Richter finally agrees to help them then, she does so willingly.

Most Wanted 3To those who spy professionally in A Man Most Wanted, there is clearly a Zen-like process to their operation. They favor the path of least resistance, and move through the film without hesitation or, for the most part, strong showings of emotion. More importantly, Bachmann leads this film not by pursuing blind ambition but by patiently allowing the state of affairs to find a tenuous harmony. Also, by interacting with his contacts personally, rather than looming over his prey from the outlook of a desk, his conduct remains in touch with his humanity. Bachmann eventually intimates that, if left to his own devices, he will protect Karpov from the ensuing fallout. He will even curtail Abdullah’s crimes in a way that will not inspire further ire from the Islamic community. However, if he is to do so he must convince the higher-ups to tame both their fury and their desire for a flashy headline, and for a man as Zen as Bachmann, that kind of opposition will not come by him naturally.

This internal struggle between Bachmann’s counter-terrorism task force and its overseeing governmental infrastructure gives A Most Wanted Man an ethical through-line utterly lacking in comparative works based around this idea of “fighting” terrorism. By illustrating the disparity between a subtle and brusque approach, the audience begins to understand the root cause in the perpetuation of violence known to most as The War on Terror. Regardless of intent, the seeds of conflict are sewn through strong emotion and the overwhelming impulse to act. Hope then resides with those who can take a step back and gain perspective, and then respond with measured discipline. And sadly, if we are to believe Corbijn’s film, that hope is a fragile thing that risks being drowned out amidst the baying dogs of war.

Most Wanted 4On this final note of fragility, it seems relevant to touch on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last leading role in cinema. While the performances in A Most Wanted Man are admirable throughout, Hoffman stands tall among his peers, incorporating the unflappable presence of his character so easily that the two do seem inseparable. I want to avoid speaking of the man like I knew him, but I will say that the circumstances surrounding his death are unbearably tragic, not the least of which because of the potential for great works of art cut short with his passing. That loss to film is one that will be felt for a long time to come, for at his best Hoffman was the physical embodiment of the art form itself. At least viewers can find solace in the fact that A Most Wanted Man honors the actor in one of the few ways likely to matter: by allowing the man to perform something of substance.

Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.

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