Modern spy movies that deal with the general complexities of international espionage and practices established during the Cold War that don't have a James Bond-type central agent at their core can often be frustrating for audiences. They tend to be complicated, messy, and have little consequence in terms of narrative outcome. The Coen Bros. parodied this perfectly a couple of years ago with their marvelous comedy Burn After Reading. It's essentially several reels of people running around screwing one another over, all for no good reason, just to be filed away in a manila folder in a gray filing cabinet somewhere deep in a government building.
Anton Corbijn's John Le Carré adaptation A Most Wanted Man deals with the shadowy waters of international intelligence in much the same manner, but the very essence of the story is that the people working to keep track of terrorists as they move money around know that this is a long game where the little pieces matter when figuring out the bigger picture of the puzzle. As Philip Seymour Hoffman's Günther Bachmann explains it to a group of bureaucrats and higher-ups, you catch the minnow to use as bait for the barracuda so the barracuda will lure in the shark.
In the case of A Most Wanted Man, the minnow is a Chechnya refugee who has landed in Hamburg on some unknown business. Issa Karpov (Grigriy Dobrygin) is the Muslim son of a Russian general who, prior to sneaking into Germany, spent time in both a Russian and Turkish prison. He immediately hits the radar of Günther and his small crew of anti-terror agents. They want to follow Issa on whatever trail he is traveling in hopes of learning more about how terrorist cells may be operating amongst the Islamist community in the city. Others, including a determined CIA agent (Robin Wright), would rather they take the man into custody immediately.
The barracuda that Günther hopes to attract with Issa is a Muslin scholar and charity worker (Homayoun Ershadi) whom Günther believes is siphoning off donations to fund terrorism. In the course of chasing both of these fish, Günther will also scoop up a liberal immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a banker (Willem Dafoe) whose father once laundered money for the Russian underground. How exactly all of this will fit together and what the outcome of the chase will be is, well, pretty much everything A Most Wanted Man entails. The spies don't have private lives, and much of what they do impedes on the lives of others in the name of saving even more lives down the road. The true cost of these endeavors is something Günther will end up having to face, particularly as internal pressures chafe against his changing impressions of some of the players.
Ostensibly Philip Seymour Hoffman's last movie, it's to the late performer's credit just how much nuance he brings to what is intended to be a rather stone-faced portrayal of an old-guard spook. Günther has seen some bad things go down in his day--and has taken the resulting hit to his reputation--but rather than turning him into, say, the bold and brash operator that Hoffman played in Charlie Wilson's War, he's more the tired pragmatist, a cousin to George Clooney's character in Syriana. Hoffman's physical presence in A Most Wanted Man is the very definition of "hangdog." Shoulders forever slumped, his face in a permanent frown. Yet, there is a heart beating in there. He seems to be a kind boss, able to joke when required, and also has his moments of chivalry. You get the sense that he generally likes his right-hand operative (Nina Hoss, as good here as she was in Barbara), and it's refreshing to see a male-female relationship onscreen where the only flirting occurs to break the tension before the two colleagues have to pretend to make-out while on a stakeout.
Corbijn has worked the spy angle before in his undervalued hitman thriller The American; yet, that film was more of a personal story, focusing on one man, and how the choices he makes affect him as an individual. Here, the actions have reverberations. The script for A Most Wanted Man is by Andrew Bovell (Edge of Darkness). He and his director both have enough faith in the material and the audience's intelligence that they don't spend too much time on exposition or explaining every detail. A Most Wanted Man is a movie where image and action take precedence over dialogue. Perhaps its because Corbijn spent his early career, before transitioning into cinema with Control in 2007, as a still photographer and music director that he lets so many scenes pass in silence when other less-assured storytellers would add some kind of self-reflexive declaration. Only occasionally, such as when Willem Dafoe is in the bank vault, do characters say out loud what is going through their head, and only then to a small degree, as might be natural when one is alone in a locked room. Of course, it doesn't hurt that all the while we are watching scenery as lit by the great cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (Lawless, The Scent of Green Papaya). The moody, industrial grays of the German streets have never looked so lovely and the drab browns of rundown bars so inviting.
Likewise, hiring Claire Simpson, the editor of many of Oliver Stone's 1980s movies and a John le Carré veteran (she cut Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener), probably gave Corbijn a leg up when it came to splicing all the criss-crossing elements together. They avoid getting clever with it. There are very little coincidental occurrences, no overly complicated moves where a van pulls away to reveal the enemy has been lurking behind it all the time. Yet, the bread is sliced up with such precision, it's always easy to see which loaf each piece belongs to.
The pessimism that pervades throughout the movie may still turn off some to A Most Wanted Man, but the downbeats are also symptomatic of our times and the world we live in. If we see Günther's failings as depressing, we might just be looking at it the wrong way. Another way to interpret the information as given is to be glad that we can believe in the notion of such a man still being out there trying to fight the good fight and keep people safe despite the fact that there seems to be no great change or any end in sight. Because whichever way this story may or may not go, we know he's going to punch the clock again tomorrow and try all over again. It's an alternative to the pointless shenanigans of the genre, even if no less futile.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.