John le Carré’s novels have proven to be successful frameworks for film adaptations throughout his entire career, dating back to 1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold up to the most recent A Most Wanted Man starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps it is le Carré’s densely complicated and nuanced plots that make his stories seem somehow more true to life than the Bournes or the Bonds (and especially the Ryans and Reachers). What le Carré’s writing lacks in explosions and car chases, he more than makes up for with sophisticated, multilayered characters embroiled in puzzles of espionage. Whereas Jason Bourne is able to single-handedly foil the intelligence agencies of the entire western world, le Carré’s characters produce the same amount of tension that any good spy story will evoke, without firing a shot.
In the hands of director Anton Corbijn (The American), le Carré’s intelligent prose and character complexity is not compromised in this film adaptation. In his last role before his untimely death, Hoffman is a perfect le Carré spy, smoking and drinking too much, out of shape, disgruntled. Against the backdrop of post-9/11 paranoia he plays Günter Bachman, the head of an anti-terror team in Hamburg with the right dose of political cynicism that cuts through the fantasy that righteousness trumps ideology. Everyone has a past they don’t care to mention, an agenda they don’t wish to expose, so while he diligently tracks suspected Chechen Jihadist Issa Karpov in hopes that Karpov can expose an even greater threat, he remains suspicious of those around him claiming to be on the same side. The Americans have an interest in Dr. Faisal Abdullah, a wealthy philanthropist suspected of backing terrorist cells, while the Germans want Karpov interrogated. Human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) wants to protect Karpov as he claims he was tortured in Russia and fears being deported. When Karpov decides to donate millions in inheritance to Abdullah, all parties stories begin to weave together. The result is not a game of cat and mouse that characterizes a usual Hollywood spy-thriller, but rather a game of dangling the bait to see who can catch the biggest fish.
The most refreshing aspect of a le Carré novel and, in this case, movie adaptation, is this deviation from the typical action packed spy-thriller. A Most Wanted Man is a slow burner. It requires patience, and an interest in geopolitics doesn’t hurt. But with that comes a more sophisticated type of storytelling, where complexity sits in place of linear plot lines, where moral questioning replaces the idea that good always triumphs, and where main characters live lives of desperation and paranoia, rather than possessing super human strength and foresight. A Most Wanted Man is as covert and impenetrable as the war on terrorism itself. The winners and losers are hard to define, and good and evil are a merely a matter of perspective.
- Bruno Mancini