A Most Wanted Man

Lawyer, Banker, Drifter, Spy

wantedAnton Corbijn has taken on the task of adapting another John le Carré spy novel, the most recent being Tomas Alfredson’s admirable go at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  As with that film (not to mention most of le Carré’s work), A Most Wanted Man feels like a fragment.  Spy narrative, complete with slow burn, introspective protagonists, and sometimes impenetrable politics, constitutes such a deep and complex culture and experience that AMWM (even at its two-hour runtime) still feels like the middle of a story once it ends.  That’s in part a compliment to the filmmaker and actors, who never allow us to disengage from the tension, but also a comment on the painful realism of these stories: Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does not want the story to end yet, but as we realize after our post-ending tantrum, the ending this film gets is the only ending possible.

Bachmann, a German espionage agent, runs an intelligence outfit in Hamburg.  When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee, illegally enters the country and is confirmed by Russian intelligence to be a terrorist threat, Bachmann puts out feelers, as Karpov’s intention to collect an inheritance from his dishonorable father’s account may have some connection to something Bachmann’s team (which includes Nina Hoss, Vicky Krieps, and Mehdi Dehbi) have been interested in for some time: Doctor Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim philanthropist, is believed to be funding terrorist activities.  Bachmann needs proof.  Unfortunately, two other parties are interested in these issues: Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American diplomat, and German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who works with the Americans.  To put it lightly, gentle Bachmann and the gung-ho others differ on how to handle the Karpov situation, and are left to pursue things in their own way after Bachmann refers to Mohr as a “clown.”  They basically let Bachmann go about his business, but we get the sense that the Americans are almost too invisible as operations go forward.

The film’s deuteragonist is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer who wants to give Karpov a chance.  She puts him in touch with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had shady relations (money laundering) with Karpov’s father.  Karpov wants to give the money away, but is ultimately a young man trying to find himself, and has no real plan – a fact that may prove as frustrating to some viewers as it does to the film’s various spies and agents.  But it makes complete sense; in fact, if a homeless torture victim turned out to have a meticulously thought-out strategy for dealing with millions of euros, there wouldn’t be much of a case for the film’s realism.  Annabel truly feels for the young refugee, and goes as far as hiding him in a relative’s soon-to-be-renovated apartment when she thinks Bachmann’s group might have dastardly intentions for him.  What Bachmann really wants to do is convince Karpov to donate the money to Abdullah’s organization in order to prove that the latter is funneling money to Seven Friends, a shipping company that is actually a front for Al Qaeda.  The obvious choice is to simultaneously turn Annabel and Tommy, one by kidnapping and one by highbrow, gentlemanly schmoozing.  Guess which.

The other story thread involves several sparsely placed meetings between Bachmann and Sullivan, who try to work out a mutually beneficial method for dealing with Karpov.  Nothing works, yet the film refrains from outwardly vilifying Sullivan, whose genuine charm (that of the Princess Bride herself) actually convinces us that she’s being kind, and not jerky, by giving Bachmann various ultimatums, all of which seem fair if he can actually do his job.  She even gets him a meeting with the interior minister, who gives him the green light.

A Most Wanted Man is more genuinely characterized than Tinker, Tailor, which more or less amounts to a whodunnit wherein lots of middle-aged white men tirelessly dogmatize about what it all means.  The identity of the mole is everything.  Here, there are more pieces, and the pieces are people who are actually worth caring about, not to mention that every character’s motivation and reasons for acting the way they do are very well laid out (except for Karpov, who doesn’t know himself, which makes him even more of a wildcard).  The film opens with a nice, long shot of Bachmann’s entire team, giving an audience time to take in what each of them looks like, so that we recognize them as they stalk Richter and Karpov on the subway or pretend to be a target’s old acquaintance.  A long, father-son-style scene between Bachmann and his spy underling Jamal seems out of place, but provides a vital payoff later.  Best of all, Bachmann’s team includes almost as many women as it does men, with Vicky Krieps and Nina Hoss (as Niki and Erna respectively) convincingly portraying characters who have been doing this work with Bachmann for a long time.  Never do we get the sense that this is a group of cool, quirky movie spies with flashy skills.  Everything about them seems real, especially the fatigue.

Annabel, though, represents the heart of the film.  She cares about what she does.  She’s confident and brave, unafraid of Tommy, Bachmann, or the government, but able to be convinced when a good point is made.  Notably, she’s the only one who acts out of sympathy, whereas Bachmann and Sullivan facetiously refer to their motivations with the quip, “To make the world a safer place.  Isn’t that enough?”

Karpov, of course, is the film’s titular wanted man, but sadly, another man is “wanted” after the film ends.  This is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead role, and even though I’ll be able to gush about him twice more in the upcoming Hunger Games sequels, the final shot of this film – an extended, single-shot car ride through Hamburg with Hoffman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, as though he’s chauffeuring us to a staged performance of the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes,” before he gets out and walks away with the audience still in the car – is truly hollowing.

A Most Wanted Man (2014); based upon the novel by John le Carré; screenplay by Andrew Bovell; directed by Anton Corbijn, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. 


The American


americanAnton Corbijn’s The American is packed with achievements other filmmakers in this genre attempt but fail: a truly gripping story, genuine sympathy for the Boring Hero, and a disguise so convincing that a fairly run-of-the mill thriller (based on a run-of-the-mill novel) becomes a thoughtful drama.  I once thought I was coming close to the latter with a screenplay I was working on, but alas, my hard drive crashed, and the only person with a copy still refuses to hand it over for reasons I will never know.  Anyway, in addition to what other filmmakers try, this film also achieves a few things other makers of thrillers forget about entirely – generally accurate portrayals of firearms (not just what they look like, but how precise a shooter can be at what range with what gun, what a silenced gun actually sounds like, etc.), an extra mite of thought into characterization, and artful direction.

The story centers around “Mr. Butterfly” (also known as Jack and Edward), played by the aging George Clooney.  Jack is an assassin and a maker of firearms, which he can apparently finagle from the simplest of items when he needs to.  In his age, though, he has become paranoid and bored.  His personality has become stony and impenetrable, a technique that often results in an uninteresting and underdeveloped character in a film like this (see Jason Statham in every American film he’s in), but here, the Boring Hero is redeemed.  He doesn’t act this way for the sake of the audience; he’s actually afraid.  Rival assassins are after him, and for good reason.  Love and all other forms of attachment evade him, and after being forced to execute a loved one to protect his identity, he’s resorted to seeing a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido) with whom he can fake fidelity.  Jack works for a sun-dried criminal who calls himself Pavel (the great Belgian actor Johan Leysen).  Pavel fills in another routine thriller role, the Shadow Premiere.  We never really find out who he is or what his reasons might be; we just know Jack has to do what he says.

For being based on a novel that tends to be shootout-y, the film focuses on Jack’s paranoia and attempts at living a life in Italy while he goes through the motions of his job.  A classic femme fatale called Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) is his newest client, asking for a blah-blah-blah gun with blah-blah-blah specifications for a blah-blah-blah murder.  She pops up three separate times in the film, each time with completely different hair.  Refreshingly, we don’t get the sense that this is intended to “symbolize” anything; it’s just an indication of the kind of shady and dangerous life she lives.  Clooney and Reuten, who played the sweetheart innkeeper in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, share a wonderful scene at a picnic area, during which the dialogue is so well delivered that the inclusion of bullets and butterflies in the same conversation doesn’t seem odd in the least.  The cast also includes Paolo Bonacetti as Father Benedetto, a kind old priest who befriends Jack, but his involvement in the story yields no real results in the end.

The final eighth of the film falls into thriller formula – running from bad guys, finding out who characters are “really” working for, twists that surprise Jack but not the audience, camera shots from within a sniper’s scope, and head-shots aplenty.  What saves the day is that Corbijn doesn’t change the tone – everything is still understated.  Death is never glorified nor accompanied by a crescendo.  The artfully-done love scenes with Clara become longer each time they happen, while the gun-construction and workout scenes become shorter, perhaps suggesting that Jack is more focused on love again, though he still doesn’t know whether he can really trust Clara (or, for that matter, anyone else in the film) until the final five minutes.  We share his paranoia because Corbijn wisely never leaves Jack’s perspective (until that final eighth I mentioned, and even then, only long enough to state two lines of dialogue that make us fear for Jack more than ever).

The American is a film that will put a smile on the face of those who (incorrectly) believe that “every story has already been told” and that “you can only tell old stories in new ways, not new stories.”  The film follows a specific formula comprised of stock characters, but it’s one of those gems in which the casting is picture-perfect, the care put into the storytelling is brilliantly evident, and our sympathies allow themselves to lie with a killer, because for an hour and forty-five minutes, he becomes a real person.  From the staggering opening scene to the sobering and inevitable conclusion, the audience walks a dark corridor with Jack, observing his decisions but never quite judging them, because as Al Green once said,  “Love’ll make you do right, love’ll make you do wrong.”

The American (2010); written by Rowan Joffé (based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth); directed by Anton Corbijn; starring George Clooney, Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten.