The spymaster has just had the pretty young lawyer for progressive causes thrown in the back of a van and taken to an interrogation cell somewhere in Hamburg. He takes the bag off her head and asks, “Do you know where you are? No, you don’t. You’re in the real world, Annabelle.”
With “A Most Wanted Man,” we’re not in the real world, exactly. We’re in John le Carré-land, a landscape of fictional espionage that’s still much closer to the compromises, betrayals, and gray moral areas of realpolitik than most movies and books dare give us. There’s a lot to sort out — who’s on which side, what anyone’s endgame is — which is why a film like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” can baffle audiences used to movies that do all the thinking for them.
“A Most Wanted Man,” directed steadily and subtly by photographer Anton Corbijn from le Carré’s 2008 novel, is a little easier to parse. Partly that’s because it puts so much faith in its central character, Gunther Bachmann, an intelligence lifer exhausted from fighting the bureaucrats while holding on to a spark of honor. Partly it’s because of the faith we, the audience, put in the man playing him: Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the actor’s last leading role before his death, in February.
After an unspecified intelligence disaster in Beirut, Gunther has washed up in Hamburg, a city still under a sticky blanket of guilt for harboring the 9/11 terrorists in the months leading up to the attack. He heads a small antiterrorist unit that “not many people know about and less people like,” mostly because he prefers to make his quarry work for him as moles rather than throwing them to the Americans. The cadre of agents under Gunther worship him; Daniel Bruhl (“Rush”) is among their number, as is the magnificent Nina Hoss (“Barbara”), the sort of grown-up woman before whom Hollywood movies quail.
The intelligence services are in a dither because a young Chechen Muslim named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), with ties to jihadist groups, has hopped off a container ship and is now at large in the city. Gunther’s rivals at other units in Hamburg and Berlin have taken an interest, as have the Americans in the cool, collected person of the CIA’s Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Watching her and Gunther discuss matters over coffee (spiked with whiskey in his case) is almost comical. These are people who know how to speak without ever using concrete nouns or verbs.
The great pleasure of le Carré-land — for some, it’s the frustration — is that one’s own moral certainties are quickly stood on their head. A terrorist may turn out to be a victim, scarred by 24 hours of Russian “questioning.” A money-laundering banker (Willem Dafoe) may turn out to be a quiet beacon of decency. That lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a crusader for political asylum, might be a hapless naïf in over her head. And all of us, in one way or another, are atoning for the sins of our fathers, which is just another way of saying that history — the Cold War, World War II, World War I, man’s cruelty to man — is a bill that never stops coming due.
Le Carré’s heroes tend to be shabby men, flawed by their goodness and expert at what they do. George Smiley is the most famous (played by Alec Guinness on TV and Gary Oldman on film), but Gunther Bachmann may be even more touching a figure, old enough to have known East Germany and the Stasi, experienced enough to know that treating a person as an enemy tends to make him one. A parallel plotline involves an Arab philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) who may be funneling money to jihadists. Most movies would assume he’s the bad guy, and, indeed, that’s what the CIA and Berlin think. Gunther knows better: Take the philanthropist out and you’re back to tap-tap-tapping in the dark. Turn him around and maybe he’ll take you to the real bad guys.
Hoffman was 46 when he died, and “A Most Wanted Man” hints at the older roles he was starting to move into. His Gunther is a battered knight in a wheezy, overweight body; the character rarely looks anyone in the eye because he’s tired of looking at liars. The actor gives his character a German accent that may even be accurate, and that has the sound of a man patiently outthinking calamities he knows will come. The love affair that Gunther and Hoss’s Anna don’t quite have just about breaks your heart.
Le Carré himself wrote a recent article in The New York Times about the emotions he experienced witnessing Hoffman on set. They’re the same ones we felt and still do when we watch his acting: awe, delight, solidarity, gratitude. He was the rare movie star who seemed to function without egotism, whose performances acknowledge we’re all in the same boat, that it’s sinking, and that the tragedy of the situation is inextricable from its comedy. “We should take care. All of us,” Gunther advises the lawyer at one point, but he probably knows it’s too late. One wonders if Hoffman felt the same.
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