Sunday, August 3, 2014

Anton Corbijn | A Most Wanted Man

to make the world a safer place

Andrew Bovell (screenplay, based on a novel by John Le Carré), Anton Corbijn (director) A Most Wanted Man / 2014

Set against the important German seaport city of Hamburg, where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the 9/11 attacks, Anton Corbijn’s tense adventure film, A Most Wanted Man, radiates a sense of paranoia. The local authorities, particularly the head of Hamburg intelligence Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bok), along with his associates, including the American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), are triggered for unmediated action every time anyone with even slightly suspicious credentials appears on their radar.

Into this cauldron of boiling tensions and hair-wired triggers comes Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), the son of a corrupt Russian general. Issa, whose young mother, raped by his father, was Chechen, has converted to the Muslin religion, and, in turn, has been tortured by Russian authorities, the horrific scars from which he wears on his back. Without a passport or papers of any kind, he has escaped into this dark world (which the director and his cinematographer Benoit Delhomme present in a sour green and brown palette—almost as if the earth itself has somehow been sickened by the surrounding human actions) in search of an inheritance his now-dead father has left him in a Hamburg Bank.

      Meeting up with a muslin woman, Leyla (Derya Alabora) and her son, Issa soon makes contact with a well-meaning lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), whose non-profit organization helps illegal immigrants and unrepresented outcasts find ways in which to gain entry in German culture. Unwittingly, she commits to the young man—whom she believes to be innocent of any criminal action as strongly as Dieter Mohr will soon be convinced of the boy’s intent to hook up with a jihadist group—while incidentally falling in love with him through Issa’s gentle responses to what is perhaps the first time in his life he has been shown any tenderness.

     Were this story to stop here, playing out an intense struggle between what might be described as a relative good and evil battle, A Most Wanted Man—based on a novel by John le Carré—could be categorized as just another tautly presented adventure-packed film, about which I would probably have never written. Between these antipodes, however, lies another reality, led by the hard-working, dour, alcoholic Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last on-screen role). Bachmann and his crack team also work as anti-terrorist forces. But their tactics, which include a deep embedding of the Islamic community and patient investigation of interconnecting links between different individuals and communities, reveal an entirely different reality, a world where, as Sullivan admits, some people can do a great deal of good and still do a few bad things. In short, as opposed to the black-and-white realities expressed in the Hamburg intelligence office and by the Americans who have previously botched one of Bachmann’s jobs back in Beirut, Bachmann and his organization perceive various levels of good and evil, using their all too human connections as links to out what may be the most truly destructive and violent of individuals and organizations.     In particular, Bachmann is out to expose the seemingly moderate Muslim Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Hornayoun Ershadi) by using Issa Karpov and his inheritance. While Abdullah clearly does a great deal of good through his charitable acts, he also appears to transfer monies and products in small amounts to a Cyprus-based shipping company who transfer those funds on to Arab terrorists. As Bachmann sees it, the man does a great deal of good work but salves his personal conscience by supporting in smaller ways the causes devoted to the terrorist underground. Indeed, Bachmann has somehow convinced Abdullah’s own son, Jamal, to join his group as a spy, promising him, when the time comes, to broker a deal with Abdullah that will force him to reveal his connections but yet protects the man’s international reputation as a peacemaker.

     Given his far greater understanding of the complexity of human nature, and his intent to use smaller criminals to catch larger prey, it is hardly any wonder that Bachmann is suspicious of nearly everyone outside of his small organization. He lives in an encapsulated world represented in the film not only in the greens and browns I have already mentioned, but in the lurid reds, yellow, and blues of the underground, a kind of cinematic hothouse wherein he and his colleagues seem to work night and day without any sleep.

     The reviewer from Time Out described Hoffman’s performance as “dyspeptic” and “uninvolving,” but his grouchy, seemingly noncommittal behavior is actually a shield to protect him from the wolves by which he is surrounded.

     One such being is Martha Sullivan, who pretends to support his actions, gradually gaining his trust through her arguments that the often brutal and often inhuman actions she and he employ are a way “to make the world a safer place.” That belief, in fact, is what makes Bachmann so vulnerable. At heart, he is a true believer, a man who actually is convinced of the Muslin Chechen’s innocence, and a man committed to keep his word not only to Jamal and to the lawyer Richter, but to the banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) who is basically honest, but is forced to live up to the evil enterprises—just like Issa must—of his father.

     The very fact that a spy might actually see his or her actions has somehow helping the human condition is unthinkable, so director Corbijn, his screen writer Andrew Bovell, and original novelist Le Carré convince us. To even want to save the world, one must be a kind of missionary, a ridiculous believer in human beings and their interrelationships with others. If Bachmann, through Hoffman’s quite brilliant portrayal of him, is a growling mess of nerves—his language hardly comprehensible at some moments, while at other times, particularly in his father-like relationship with the conflicted Jamal, an expression of something close to love—he is also a kind of sainted seer, a man who, if given half a chance, just might actually save people’s lives and maybe make the world somewhat better. He is, in short, “a most wanted man.”     The trouble is that such a being cannot be allowed to exist within the garish lit-up, high-octane, and utterly fictitious world—a world of false truths and outright lies—of the so-called “intelligence” community. For Mohr and Sullivan there is no room to explore subtleties; their philosophy is simple: if someone is under suspicion, he is already guilty. As Bachmann attempts to intricately implicate Abdullah in order to discover the forces to whom is subverting some of his overall good, Hamburg authorities intercede, capturing Issa, Abdullah and others involved, destroying and collapsing any “better world” that Bachmann might have dreamed up, while, at the same time, turning his promises into betrayals.

     The last few scenes of this excellent film are so brilliantly shot that they might be used as textbook examples of great cinematography. As both my theater-going companion, Thérèse Bachand and I noticed, the lurid colors of the underground suddenly disappear to be replaced by a realist palette of bright browns, grays, and khaki; Bachmann’s face is twisted from a kind of ashen rose of his previous stoicism into a pink howl of injustice and rage. Reality has hit him where it hurts most, in his mind and heart. The final image is of a man who no longer matters, a figure who simply wanders, his back to the audience, out of frame—much like the actor, just a few weeks later, sank out of our lives.

Los Angeles, August 3, 2014

Reprinted from Nth Position (England) (September 2014).


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