A Most Wanted Man

Well most of the summer is gone and what have we geeks got to show for it? A great X-Men movie; a Spider-Man sequel that only I seemed to like and a decent Tom Cruise SF offering that underperformed at the box office. Calling this blockbuster season slow is a misnomer. It has been glacial. So much so that I have been driven to my local art house theater in July. I normally don’t see the inside of it until October or November.
Looking at John LeCarre’s page on IMDB, I don’t believe that there has ever been a bad film or TV version of his work. Obviously some of them are better than others but I don’t think there are any real stinkers in there. Maybe he’s just been lucky in this regard. Or perhaps he is in a position where he can sell the rights to his books only to people who he’s convinced will do them justice. The most interesting possibility to me is that his books are written in such a way that only sophisticated and complex films can be made from them, or that the stories only attract filmmakers that are interested in making those kinds of movies.
He’s probably just been lucky but it is interesting to speculate about it.
In A Most Wanted Man LeCarre turns to the War on Terrorism for his plot. A half-Chechen man, Issa Karpov, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin, turns up in the Hamburg Muslim community. Hamburg is Germany’s largest port city and is where Mohammed Atta planned 9/11. There is a great deal of paranoia in government circles there and Karpov’s arrival sets off alarms in various German and American intelligence agencies. He fits the profile of a suicide bomber.
Gunter Bachmann, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles, runs a super-secret crew of spies for the German government. Their mission is to infiltrate the Muslim community and find and diffuse threats before they materialize. Bachmann believes that it is better to wait and observe these threats than to arrest them and take the chance of someone unknown filling the void left behind. He wants to leave Karpov at liberty, to find out what he is doing in Hamburg. The risks are obvious if Karpov actually does turn out to be a bomber. Karpov turns to a liberal lawyer, Annabel Richter, played by Rachel McAdams, to contact a bank run by Tommy Brue, played by Willem Defoe. This bank is holding a vast fortune which was accumulated by Karpov’s Russian father who was a gangster. When Bachmann learns this he believes that he can use Karpov to get to Feisal Abdullah, played by Homayoun Ershadi, a Muslim philanthropist who skims money off his big donations and sends it to terrorist groups.
It is a fairly complicated plot and the director, Anton Corbijn and screenwriter, Andrew Bovell, chose a linear structure to tell it. At the beginning when they are setting things up, scenes are truncated right after they advance the plot, often just before you figure out how this piece fits into the puzzle. There are none of the flashbacks or other time shifting tricks directors usually use when adapting LeCarre. It leaves you intrigued and possibly a little frustrated. The scenes get longer and more intense as the movie progresses. This is the kind of film that hinges on the bad guy signing a paper and Corbijn actually manages to make that exciting and cinematic.
The film’s two plus hours pass quickly.
The characters are typical LeCarre, flawed, cynical, but intelligent and motivated. Hoffman’s Bachmann drinks and smokes too much. His clothes are rumpled, and his tongue is a little too sharp when it comes to dealing with the agencies he needs to collaborate with. He is also a walking contradiction. His crew is authorized to operate outside the law and in total secrecy. And yet he believes in order. He doesn’t want to tear down the structures on the other side and then see them replaced in ways he doesn’t fully understand. That to him is the most dangerous situation. He uses informants, putting them in physical danger, but he cares about them. The scene where he talks a young Arab student out of quitting, and then hugs him his quite powerful. It is a father/son relationship. Hoffman embodies these contradictions with his usual ease, and his German accent isn’t bad.
The rest of the cast is good too. McAdams is great as a smart lawyer who is probably a little too naïve. Dafoe shines as a slick banker, trying to redeem his institution for its past as a vehicle that gangsters used to launder money.
Dobrygin’s performance as Karpov is masterful. He has to play his character as somewhat of a cypher, since his intentions are part of the suspense. On the outside he is a simple devout man, but there are hints of hidden depths. And when you consider that he’s probably not acting in his native language, it is doubly impressive.
A Most Wanted Man is not the best adaptation of LeCarre there is but it is a good movie and well worth seeing.

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