It is spooky how John le Carre’s portrayal of spies and spy agencies so unerringly plays out in real life. Beginning with “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965), through the Smiley saga, including the incomparable “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1974), to “A Perfect Spy” (1986), “The Russia House” (1990), “The Tailor of Panama” (2001), and several more, le Carre (pen name of David Moore John Cornwall) explores with shattering effect the moral ambiguity and arrogance of those who set out “to make the world a safer place” but fail disastrously and, more ominously, with no accountability.
The movie adaptation of his 2008 novel, “A Most Wanted Man,” builds on le Carre’s reputation. It is as good as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the post-9/11 era replacing the cold war.
Shot in Hamburg, Germany, against the subtext of Mohammed Atta and his fellow conspirators who lived in the city while they plotted 9/11, director Anton Corbijn’s tense and demanding film faithfully conveys le Carre’s recurring theme, that those charged with protecting the innocent are the first to use them as pawns and then fatally betray them.
Seen in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations of indiscriminate spying by NSA on citizens, lawmakers and heads of state, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ makes for a chilling movie experience.
Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a tortured and traumatized young Chechen Muslim with haunting eyes who enters Hamburg illegally by sea. He has no identification papers other than a cryptic letter entitling him to millions of dollars from an international bank. The money is an inheritance from his father, a Russian gangster “killed in action.”
What is the real reason for the bearded, stateless Chechen, whom Interpol has identified as an escaped militant jihadist, ending up at Hamburg? The Germans are particularly sensitive about preventing another 9/11 being masterminded from their gritty city.
There is only one way to find out, and that is to track Issa round the clock.
The responsibility falls on Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), chief of Hamburg’s counterterrorism squad, the Foreign Acquisitions Unit. Bachmann is a relic, a gruff patriot who has no family ties, no real friends, only a single-minded obsession to nail any potential post-9/11 terrorist.
Annabel Richter, an altruistic immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and head of an organization called Sanctuary North, takes up Issa’s case, determined to hold the law to its letter that anyone is innocent until proven guilty. Thomas Brue, the banker responsible for authenticating Issa’s claim to fortune (Willem Dafoe), bends to Bachmann’s pressure and wears a wire while interviewing Issa.
In this shadowy world where nuance is everything, there is little explicit violence but each scene – rain-soaked streets, trains, ferries, decadent diners, shipyards, the impersonal financial district, minority ghettos - is rife with suggestion of something about to go horribly awry. It is easy to imagine that Hamburg is a city where sinister plots can be hatched to bring the world to its knees.
Issa is a devout Muslim. (The prayer scenes are telling). He is not after his inheritance money for himself: He only wants to distribute it to legitimate charities to bring a modicum of happiness to oppressed, hapless Muslims.
Bachmann and his team want Issa to get his money, convinced that it will eventually lead them to the terror-leaders and arms-dealing groups operating in Hamburg. But Martha Sullivan, the CIA chief stationed in Germany (Robin Wright), and Bachmann’s heartless, Manichaean superiors in Germany’s intelligence service and the interior ministry have different ideas. They pretend to let Bachmann have his way, knowing that, in the end, they will be the ones calling the shots.
Bachmann entices the leader of Hamburg’s Muslim community, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi) and a fundraiser for moderate Islam, into making a terrible mistake in the distribution of Issa’s inheritance money to Muslim charities. At the last minute, however, Bachmann’s superiors move in and derail his meticulously-planned course of action. You can feel the heat of le Carre’s moral anger emanating from the screen at the deception and treachery of those responsible for upholding the rule of law.
The movie is particularly poignant in that it was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last full-length work: The gifted actor took his own life after succumbing to his inner demons a few months after the movie was completed. “There is something about that story that spoke to me about where I am now in my life, though it’s not something I could really put into words,” Hoffman said about le Carre’s novel. “I read it and saw myself in it somehow. It’s about being in the middle of your life. It’s as much a story about that, than all of the other things. It’s about a man really confronted with what he’s passionate about pursuing and what that’s done to him.”
We live in dangerous and uncertain times. ‘A Most Wanted Man’ captures the zeitgeist as only a master storyteller like John le Carre can. This taut thriller is a movie to see and to reflect on, and to realize that for people at the top, ideas of right and wrong are malleable and will always remain elusive.