' Cinema Romantico: A Most Wanted Man

Monday, August 04, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

The opening shot is telling. Rather than present some scenic landmark such as the St. Michaelis as a means to provide bearings, the camera merely presents an explanatory credit over a foul concrete embankment beneath a bridge on a river’s edge. You can almost smell the funk. Based on a novel by John le Carre, “A Most Wanted Man” is ostensibly about spies, but film's viewpoint is decidedly stripped of romanticism, demonstrating the Spy Game as grunts and drones in gloomy surroundings doing dirty work. They don’t simply make the job look difficult but unrewarding. To fail means global catastrophe. To succeed means it’s time to start game-planning for the next global catastrophe to avert. It is not a job for the faint of heart. It is a job for Gunther Bachmann. He is played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, forcefully re-emphasizing his ability to make anguish magnetic, and also quietly suggesting the personal demons he carried that eventually, terribly dragged him down. The closing shot is downright spooky.


His character is point man of a super-secret anti-terror team in Hamburg formed in the wake of 9/11 foul-ups, and his life is neatly summarized in a scene at a local bar wherein he and Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American agent with the CIA, discuss the finer points of a joint target. Midway through this powwow, the camera, which had been contemplating them along the wall in the relative private of an alcove, switches to the table’s opposite side and we see them conversing while typical bar goings-on unfold in the background. A couple dances. A man is passed out at a table. Drinks are served. The fate of the world is being decided even as the rest of the world obliviously keeps on trucking. These people have a chance to peek behind the curtain and don’t even realize it. And, of course, it’s better that way, because once you wind up behind the curtain, you wind up like Gunther – awe-inspiringly dour, burning the candle at both ends, freshening up every cup of black coffee with booze. There is another shot in the film when you catch sight of the character’s rumpled "bacon neck" undershirt. He is entombed in dishevelment.

Directed by Anton Corbijn so as to accentuate the negative, “A Most Wanted Man” is inflicted with the grim stench of bureaucracy. Despite specifically being enlisted to do a very specific thing, Gunther is routinely handcuffed and out-maneuvered by those around him as he tries to do it. He prefers a wait-and-see approach, his superior (Rainer Bock) prefers a right-now, questions-later method. Meanwhile, Martha keeps appearing like a Central Intelligence apparition. She wants to help, or she says she does, but he doesn’t trust her, and this is understandable. Her smile is the embodiment of an animal trap, as if the upper lip denotes friendliness while the bottom lip waits with the shiv. It’s a smile seven steps ahead of everyone. It’s a character unto itself.

The story seems to turn on a half-Russian, half-Chechen immigrant, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), desperately seeking asylum in Germany to escape torturous reprisals in his native countries. But that’s not how Gunther sees him. He sees a jihadist in the cloak of an immigrant, an evildoer with potential access to an inheritance that could fund an act of terror. And when Issa turns to a lawyer (Rachel McAdams) for help in accessing his money, Gunther and his team swoop in to enlist the lawyer and the banker (Willem Dafoe) in aiding the cause.

This is not, however, a standard procedural in which the characters follow clues and negotiate twists to achieve a recitation of that age-old phrase "Case solved", but nor is it a procedural specifically about the process of investigation regardless of result, like David Fincher's "Zodiac." Its ultimate twist is built to slowly and subtly and then is dropped on us all at once, and it pertains less to the outcome of the investigation than how the investigation's outcome simply serves as reinforcement of Gunther's outlook on and place in the world. “A Most Wanted Man” is an incredibly grim but no less gripping character study of a protagonist bound by red tape whose bedrock is tied not so much to faith as to futility, and the closing sequence is an effectively crushing reminder that the world is always one step ahead.

To try and remove all your pre-conceived emotional entanglements from the haunting wrap-up of “A Most Wanted Man” because “it's just a movie” is as futile as the film's overall outlook. It becomes a mind-numbing memorial and when Gunther Hoffman walks away at the end, all you want to do is pull him back. Of course, even as the film starts, you can tell this guy is already gone.

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