Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gray Men, Gray World

Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

When I was sixteen, my parents gave me an omnibus edition of John le Carré's Karla novels (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People). I still have it and I have a handful of le Carré's other novels, but I never fell in love with le Carré. His stories are cold and distant, filled with gray men doing gray things in gray offices under gray, overcast skies. Or, at least, I imagine the skies as overcast. Le Carré's books are anti-thrillers. They are often Kafka-esque traps for their characters. Most of the films based on le Carré are similarly dreary, though stocked with magnificent actors playing drab. When the Cold War ended, it was replaced by the equally dangerous War on Terror. The actors on the world stage have changed. The game generally has not, which is how le Carré has remained so relevant. So it is in A Most Wanted Man (2014, directed by Anton Corbijn), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the head of a small anti-terror unit in German intelligence. He's a defeated man, which makes the fact that this is the last role Hoffman played before his untimely death bittersweet.

A Most Wanted Man revolves around one Issa Karpov, a Chechen refugee who has entered Hamburg by "informal" means. He's spotted by the anti-terror unit headed by Günther Bachmann, who mark him as a person of interest. Is he a terrorist? It seems likely, but his guilt or innocence is ultimately immaterial. What Bachmann and his department see in Karpov is an asset. He's minnow that they'll use to catch a barracuda, in Bachmann metaphor for his methods. To this end, Bachmann suborns the banker who holds the key to Karpov's inheritance (ill gotten by his Russian father), then Karpov's immigration lawyer, the idealistic Annabel Richter. This is all in opposition to Bachmann's superiors, who would rather play whack a mole with people they suspect of terrorism. This film takes place in Hamburg, after all, where, as the film notes, Mohemed Atta planned and organized the 9/11 attacks. Also taking an interest in Bachman's department is CIA liaison Martha Sullivan, who ostensibly trusts Bachman's methods, but who is playing a game of her own. Bachmann's real target is Muslim philanthropist Dr. Abdullah, who he suspects of laundering money for terror organizations. Bachmann has suborned Dr. Abdullah's son, too. He's good at cultivating assets. Bachmann constructs an elaborate trap, but other principals in the operation have different agendas...

In 2003, John le Carré wrote an essay that opined that America had lost its mind. I don't necessarily disagree, but whatever the veracity of this statement, the author's subsequent books have turned a withering eye on how the United States conducts its intelligence in the post-9/11 world. The shadow of "extraordinary rendition" hangs over these books like a pall of doom, ditto the spectre of indefinite detention and torture at Guantanamo. Both of those fates await the hapless targets of the operations in A Most Wanted Man. One man is innocent. One man is guilty. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter to the American intelligence community, which nowadays sees enemies even where there are none and acts accordingly. 9/11 was a blow to their psyche. They take no chances yet and niceties like guilt and innocence and due process? Well, that's for a more innocent, more naive era. As Bachmann tells Annabel Richter: "Do you know where you are now? You're in the real world." This, after he calls her a "social worker for terrorists." But Bachmann is himself naive, as the endgame of the film reveals. He's old school in a world where old-school rules no longer apply. His critical mistake is believing that his methods are palatable to an intelligence apparatus that demands instant gratification rather than the long game, despite the evidence of their effectiveness in the entire game laid out by the film's plot.

Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

Unsurprisingly, there's a strong sense of American intelligence as myopic at its most benign, and outright treacherous at worst. This is memorably depicted by Robin Wright's Martha Sullivan, who the actress plays as sympathetic and pragmatic. That she's hiding a secret agenda is perfectly disguised by her blank-faced facade of sensibility. As an avatar of what America has become in the world, she's perfect: plain but duplicitous.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mehdi Dehbi in A Most Wanted Man

This makes for a strong contrast with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Günther Bachmann, whose methods deal in trust. He's protective of his assets, even though he's ruthless about how he employs them. He seems almost paternal in his scenes with Abdullah's son, Jamal. This relationship and its dynamics of betrayal is strongly reminiscent of Mosab Yousef, the son of a highly placed Hamas cleric who was turned by the Israelis. Bachmann is friendly with Tommy Brue (Willem DeFoe) even as he threatens him. He's threatening to Annabel Richter. He adopts personae that will get him what he wants and Hoffman moves through those personae with precise performances. When he's off-stage, as it were, Bachmann is desperate, and Hoffman's good at that, too, though it's a little too close to some of his other characters in other films. All of this while acting through a German accent. The accent trips up Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter, and may explain part of why her character never winds up being first in the film's affections even though her relationship with Issa has a kernel of romantic interest. This isn't that kind of film. I'm amused that Daniel Brühl, who actually is German, has so few lines.

Rachel McAdams and Grigoriy Dobrygin in A Most Wanted Man

As I've mentioned, this is a cold film. It's colder, even, than 2011's version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is saying something. Part of this is that there's not really a recognizable hero here. There's only a protagonist or two. We never get close to any of these people, not even Annabel Richter, who seems like the cinematic choice of POV characters. This ambivalence is reflected in the way this is filmed: it's mostly shot in blue light, and its meetings take place in sterile or industrial locales: glass or grime, take your pick. It's usually overcast, or seems that way even when the sun is out thanks to the desaturated color palette the filmmakers have chosen. Since this is cold fish as cinema, one is better served by approaching it as an abstraction. As a game where the characters are pieces rather than human beings with any kind of interiority. Interiority, when it's present (and it is) is entirely beside the point. I can get behind that, I guess, but it makes for a film that I respect more than like. But then, I've had that relationship with le Carré's books for decades now.

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