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. 

 

Skyfall

Last rat standing

The 007 film series took a step forward in the Brosnan era: despite the movies not being very good, the introduction of a female “M” (leader of MI6) was a progressive change.  This time around, we get three powerful female figures, which is all well and good until two of them die and the third becomes a secretary.  Skyfall, in spite of its strengths as an action movie and its inarguable superiority over the abysmal Quantum of Solace (Olga Kurylenko’s performance notwithstanding), is a step backwards in nearly all other ways.

The newest Bond story, not based upon any of Ian Fleming’s original material (most of which has been exhausted by the twenty-three films), follows James Bond (Daniel Craig on his third run) as he fakes his own death, retires from MI6, and becomes reinstated after a crisis calls for his expert attention.  M (played by Judi Dench for the seventh and final time) needs Bond to deal with a cyberterrorist and former MI6 agent called Silva (Javier Bardem).  Silva, though, is obsessed not with wealth, not with base destruction, not even with Bond himself, but with M and her apparent disregard for her own agents.  “Mommy,” as he refers to her, once left Silva to die after a failed operation, and instead of killing himself while captive, Silva only succeeded in melting his own jaw with cyanide, making him look a bit like Richard Kiel’s “Jaws” character from Moonraker.

Silva’s style of terrorism revolves around hokey Youtube videos linked with the message “Think on your sins.”  When Bond returns to action, the film plays like it’s the first time Bond is doing any of this stuff (which they already tried in Casino Royale, with less tedious results).  He fails all of his tests, but is allowed to go after Silva anyway, and teams with agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the newly-appointed Q (Ben Whishaw) to – to what?  We don’t really know.  But after a few stylized fight scenes (one of which involves an enormous CG komodo dragon), Bond finds himself on Silva’s personal island, where the latter runs his operations from a single laptop and a 1980s supercomputer.  Silva tells a parable about rats (which, given its level of attention in a film of this type, must be the scripture by which the story’s metaphors, ironies, and ideologies operate until the end), after which Bond dispatches his guards and takes the villain into custody.  We get the feeling this capture was too easy, however, and soon learn that Silva’s plan was to be captured, make his escape, and kill M after a public humiliation entailing her admission of MI6’s failures.  What follows might be the most well-shot gunfight of this year’s films.  It includes not only the main players, but also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), M’s boss, who thinks MI6 is an old fossil not worth the government paychecks it absorbs.  The film’s third act explores some Bond backstory (all invented for the film) and visits Skyfall Manor, Bond’s childhood home, where the caretaker (Albert Finney) is still watching over things.  Bond reveals to him the film’s entire plot in a nutshell: “Some people are coming to kill us.  We’re going to kill them instead.”

Throughout the film, we are told that sometimes “the old ways are best,” yet the only callbacks to the original Bond movies are brief references in the form of an Aston Martin and the old Dr. No theme song that appeared in almost all twenty-three onscreen adventures. Soon after, though, the Aston Martin is blown up, and Judi Dench is replaced by Ralph Fiennes in the role of M (a role originally inhabited by Bernard Lee and taken by men up until 1997’s Goldeneye), indicating that the best of the “old ways” is the idea of a man-centric action fantasy, not the beloved conventions of the series, and certainly not the progression the films of the 90s strove for.  The line about the “old ways” is spoken by Finney’s character as he places a combat knife in front of Bond.  This is meant to be foreshadowing (Bond, of course, will end up killing Silva with the proverbial “Chekhov’s Knife”), but to the unenlightened, I offer this tidbit: you should not realize that an event was foreshadowed until after the event happens.  If the film gives you a clue and you figure out what’s going to happen before it happens, that’s not foreshadowing; it’s just a clumsy spoiler.  Hasn’t Sam Mendes heard of the old “two weeks til retirement” trope?

Skyfall snatches a defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to its female characters.  It also contains several holes we’re expected to overlook: what is the purpose of Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), other than to be naked and dead?  Why include her sad backstory and only keep her alive for five minutes, with Bond later referring to her demise as a “waste of good Scotch” (not to mention that he took advantage of her after she mentioned suffering sexual assault in her youth)?  How does Silva know that Bond will go through such an arduous quest (and survive) to capture him?  If he wanted to be captured, why not simply turn himself in to MI6?  Why is Eve, who saved Bond multiple times in the film’s early scenes (including defeating an armed henchman with nothing but a high-heeled shoe) considered “not cut out” for field work?  Why doesn’t she participate in the final battle at Skyfall Manor?  The revelation that her surname is “Moneypenny” demonstrates a slight misunderstanding of the character, but since they’re seating her behind a desk until further notice, I assume we’re not supposed to care.

In the original novels and short stories, Bond was complex.  His smoking and drinking were considered vices, and he often found himself in rehab and the hospital.  His womanizing, so glorified in the films, was an unbearable sex addiction in Fleming’s stories, and he lost the women because he either failed to protect them or they got sick of his bad habits.  To its credit, Skyfall attempts to reignite some of what made Bond human, not just a super-spy, though it’s not the same stuff Fleming used.  It’s not even from the same bucket of clay.

Craig gives his best Bond performance yet (the pressure to match Bardem’s performance as Silva probably contributed to that), and Naomie Harris is gorgeous, fun, and serious in the role of Eve.  Ola Rapace appears as Patrice, a silent hitman who should have been in the film for longer (but whose duel with Bond is shot on a wonderfully atmospheric set).  Whishaw’s new, younger Q is expertly handled, reflecting the relationship Bond had with the character in the old movies, and strongly echoes Desmond Llewelyn’s voice.  While Casino Royale was the be-all-end-all attempt at adapting one of Fleming’s books, Skyfall feels like a wholehearted attempt to reboot the films.

When asked why one of my students liked this film, he replied, “It has guns and attractive females.”  Who nowadays would believe that this film series was birthed from a series of beautifully written spy novels about an emotional, conflicted, and truly heroic character?

Skyfall (2012); written by Neal Purvis and John Logan; adapted from the original James Bond character by Ian Fleming; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

No, it’s not Men in Black III

As the Oscars continue to push me toward my inevitable aneurysm, great films continue to release on the tail end of awards season.  2012 doesn’t (so far) look like it will be quite the year for film as 2011 was, but there are glimmers of hope here and there.  I’m currently playing tag with the final films of 2011, many of which are still available to see.

Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a quiet spy film in the tradition of Three Days of the Condor and The Good Shepherd.  Based upon a complex spy novel by John le Carré and perhaps inspired by the seven-part TV series from many years ago, the film features a prize collection of male actors, including Oscar-nominated Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Colin Firth, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, and Ciarán Hinds.  The story follows a few characters, centering around George Smiley (Oldman), whom, after being forced into retirement from the Circus (the British secret service), is tasked with uncovering the identity of a mole.  From the beginning, we know that the mole is sitting at the table, but the filmmakers don’t so much invite us to decode the mystery for ourselves as they do urge us to tag along with Smiley.

What follows is essentially a two-hour series of interviews, through which Smiley and his sidekick, Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) ingeniously smoke the mole out.  Contrary to the usual, I won’t go into detail about the plot, as its movement doesn’t lend itself well to this type of piece.  However, the film contains inspired performances, convincingly suspenseful situations (at the expense of obligatory gunfights, which the less experienced spy-film-viewer may expect here), and some great use of image patterning (keep track of every shot of dripping liquid, if you can).

To the film’s detriment, perhaps, is the uniformly consistent direction by Alfredson.  The cinematography is always solid, but rarely surprising.  In addition, the underuse of music throughout and explosive overuse of “La Mer” at the end is a bit jarring.  Only one female character shows up in the film (Irina, played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), and once Ricki Tarr (Hardy) gets involved with her, there’s not much hope that she’ll last until the denouement.  Perhaps most striking is the lack of characterization for Smiley.  Rather than receiving character-deepening scenes (apart from one, during which he relates a story about meeting Karla, an enemy of Britain), Smiley acts as the linchpin for the movie’s forward action, and the story’s ancillary characters orbit him without ever allowing us to be too curious about him.  We’re not even allowed to see the face of his estranged wife, Ann, who cheats on him with Haydon (Firth) in one of the film’s important subplots.  The film’s other major draw is Mark Strong, who plays Jim Prideaux, a British spy-turned-schoolteacher who has a good relationship with children and a hell of an aim with a .22.  It’s a nice change from his usual villain roles.

Spy movies like this only come out every so often, and it’s just as well, since their quiet nature turns the average American filmgoer’s brain into pudding.  It’s refreshing, however, when a film of this type not only turns out well, but gets a bit of recognition.  Oldman’s Best Actor is coming.  Not this year nor for this film, but soon.

 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011); written by Bridget O’Connor (adapted from John le Carré’s novel); directed by Tomas Alfredson; starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong.