A Most Wanted Man
Produced by The Ink Factory and Film 4
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Screenplay by Andrew Bovell from John Le Carre’s novel
Distributed by Roadside Attractions

John Le Carre has made a career of demonstrating that intelligence agencies are fundamentally untrustworthy.  The very nature of their work, he suggests, makes them prone to blinkered paranoia if not flat-out madness, not to mention monstrous cruelty.  Consider the surprisingly faithful film adaptation of his 20th novel, A Most Wanted Man.  It centers on a plan to ensnare Muslims suspected of aiding the cause of jihadism in Europe.

As Le Carre has done before, he makes the case that the plan, though virtuously devised, necessarily runs the risk of inflicting grave human cost when implemented.  This has been Le Carre’s central theme since he began writing about Cold War espionage in the early 1960’s.  People, convinced of their irreproachable motives, can and often do cause enormous suffering.  British Military Intelligence operative Alec Leamas learns this in Le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  Leamas’s own superior uses him as a pawn in an elaborate game designed to sacrifice Fiedler, a relatively honorable East German intelligence officer, in order to protect his monstrous superior, Karl Mundt, an entirely venal son of a bitch who had sold out to British intelligence years earlier.  Unknowingly, Leamas sends Fiedler, not incidentally a Jew, to his death to save Mundt, the turncoat head of one unit of the East German secret service.  In a devilish parody of the Mass, Leamas, who is described by his lover as having the gravity of a priest and whose name the narrator points out is pronounced “le mass,” offers Fiedler up on the altar of expedience to save Mundt and his British handlers—and, thereby, the West itself.  Or so MI back in Trafalgar Square has convinced itself.  The novel brims with this sort of blasphemous black humor.

A Most Wanted Man rarely displays such humor.  It’s dour to a fault, which suggests Le Carre has become even more pessimistic about our postcommunist fortunes.  German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the head of a street-level unit in Hamburg.  Bachmann believes his efforts will “make the world a safer place,” and he’s willing to break whatever laws necessary, both civil and moral, to achieve this worthy end.  Hoffman plays Bachmann as a bearish, lumbering wreck of a man, smoking and drinking incessantly as he barks orders to his staff, ever intent on righting a listing world before it capsizes.  He’s been on a low boil since the September 11 attacks on the United States, convinced he had failed miserably by not detecting Mohamed Atta’s presence in Hamburg, where he plotted his suicide mission.

When we meet Bachmann, he’s setting in motion an operation to apprehend a 25-year-old Muslim named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who has been ensnared in the toils of the West’s understandable if myopic program to catch and torture Muslims who give any evidence of jihadi intentions.  Issa has recently escaped from a Turkish prison, where he had been tortured on suspicion of harboring such intentions.  He’s come to Hamburg, hoping to become a German citizen.

Bachmann doesn’t believe the boy is guilty of anything more than a benighted idealism.  While Issa fervently protests his commitment to Islam, he seems almost entirely ignorant of this fathomless faith.  His attachment is purely emotional.  His dead mother was a Chechen Muslim possibly raped by his father, a Russian colonel named Karpov, who had been posted to Chechnya to quell an Islamic insurgency.  This information has naturally led Issa to despise his father and honor his mother.  What he seems not to know is that his mother suffered death at the hands of her own brother who, in Islamic fashion, slew her as a matter of honor after Karpov was called back to his homeland.  Karpov, on the other hand, remained faithful to the Chechen woman he may or may not have raped and the son she bore him, providing for the boy with stolen millions stashed in a Hamburg bank.

Issa’s heritage could hardly be blacker or more timely.  He’s a man born of the disastrous collision of fanaticism and imperialism we’ve come to know only too well.  Unfortunately for Issa and others, the young man fails to comprehend the terrible irony of his existence.

When Issa shows up on Bachmann’s radar, one of his staff asks, “Who is he?”

Bachmann blithely answers, “He’s the son of God sent to save us.”  Bachmann is closer to the truth than he realizes.

Son of God or son of misery, Issa fits into Bachmann’s plan to catch a larger fish, a professor named Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who has been raising funds for Muslim charities, one of which Bachmann suspects has been giving financial support to jihadi terrorists.

So much is unknown about Issa that his ambiguous presence in Hamburg creates a moral vacuum.  His presence, in effect, creates an absence.  It sucks in intelligence operatives committed to knowing the meaning of everyone and everything.  Each has his or her own interpretation of what Issa stands for and how he can be used.  As in Le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama, the absence of understanding works on spies as a magnet does on iron filings.  They find Issa an irresistible blank, one they’re compelled to fill with their own imaginings.

Accordingly, Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), head of a rival German agency, thinks Issa is nothing more or less than a terrorist to be put to extraordinary rendition.  Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, formidably icy), a CIA agent sent to observe Bachmann’s operation, also has plans for Issa, which she’s not willing to divulge.  Beyond the espionage purview, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human-rights lawyer, considers Issa a victim to be saved.  Only Bachmann thinks differently.  He suspends judgment, content to regard Issa as a cipher he can wield in his attempt to understand and thwart more serious threats.  On Bachmann’s watch, Issa may even become a sacrificial offering.  As is typical in Le Carre’s fiction, no one views Issa as a person.  He’s either a cause or an instrument.  Herein lies the source of misunderstanding that licenses otherwise honorable agents to commit monstrous deeds.

And Issa himself?  Well, it’s best I stay mum.  Suffice it to say that director Anton Corbijn has arranged several scenes so that they ironically visualize Issa’s cipher-like presence.  In one, the fugitive immigrant wanders about an apartment undergoing renovation.  He’s in a room draped with translucent plastic sheeting hung to limit the spread of drywall dust and paint splatter.  We watch him, a wan and evidently broken man distanced and obscured behind the plastic.  He forlornly amuses himself, flying paper airplanes into the sheeting.  It’s an image of occluded revelation.  Here is a man who wants to fly free, but where or why we simply don’t know.  Furthermore, his flights are repeatedly balked by the thinnest yet most impenetrable of barriers: espionage-driven presuppositions.  All we really know of Issa is what he tells Annabel.  He wants, so he says, to become a doctor so he can do some good in the world, an improbable goal for such a beaten man.

As always in a Le Carre novel, plot serves as the excuse to explore the shifting tangents of political philosophies and the presumptions they foster.  First among these presumptions is the belief that professionally vetted perceptions can reliably report reality as it is.  Le Carre’s characters generally think they can explain the world with a few deftly formulated abstractions, only to discover their mental constructs are far too feeble to manage the complexity in which they’re mired.  That’s why they’re so often dead wrong when they attempt to impose their imaginings upon the world.

One more observation.  I’ve read several reviews of the film that pay more attention to Hoffman, its “star,” than to the movie.  (I use quotation marks around star because it’s always seemed to me foolish and harmful to designate actors with such a celestial status.)  These commentators go on about what a tragic loss we, the public, have suffered.  I know virtually nothing about Hoffman beyond what I’ve seen him do on screen.  He was certainly talented, but so are untold thousands of other actors, forced to ply their trade in the shadow of officially designated luminaries such as Hoffman, who are relentlessly shoved at us by their tireless publicity machines.  I don’t know what caused Hoffman to acquire the heroin habit that finally killed him.  All I can say is that, beyond his immediate family and friends, his death, though sad, doesn’t seem to me a cause for special mourning.  Of course, the professionally lachrymose media always see pay dirt in the death of a celebrity and have predictably mined Hoffman’s corpse for all it’s worth.

The media’s feasting on celebrity remains raises a question worth pondering.  Do performers such as Hoffman succumb to the intolerable pressure they feel to live up to their media-inflated reputations?  If so, wouldn’t it be better to chuck the “star” system altogether?  Doing so would have the salutary effect of making way for many more performers than the couple of hundred who are repeatedly and tiresomely premiered.  This would simultaneously relieve pressure on “stars” and give us pleasing variety in our entertainment.  It might also put the gossip rags and televised celebrity mills out of business or, at least, curtail the harm they do.  But I’m dreaming.  There’s far too much money in celebrity.  Even when a “star” dies, whether naturally or unnaturally, the buzzards find his corpse irresistibly profitable.  They will always pick the fallen to the bone.