Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim, enters Hamburg, Germany illegally, weaving his way through sewers, stowing away on a cargo ship, hiding in plain sight beneath a dirty hooded sweatshirt and a scraggly beard. Throughout his circuitous journey, though, Issa makes time to pray. Heightened levels of secrecy and devotion can only lead to the conclusion that Issa is a man on a deadly mission.
And hot on his trail is Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a covert anti-terrorism team. Günther is obsessed, hounded by failures in his and his country’s past, in terms of their inability to shut down key terrorist groups working under their noses. Günther is a spy who lives by the credo that you can trust no one but yourself. Intriguingly, his crack team, with Irna Frey (Nina Hoss) as his second-in-command and quite possibly his conscience, feels like sentient appendages sprung and loosed from Günther’s psyche.
What gradually becomes clear, along director Anton Corbijn’s carefully strewn trail of breadcrumbs in his adaptation of John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, is that Günther has a much larger target in mind. Spying is more than a mere game of chess; it is an extension of natural selection, a complex restructuring of the food chain with a highly intelligent design. Each element must be studied, captured and then released in order to serve as bait for the next subject, higher up on the priority list. The endgame for Günther is not about executing revenge under the guise of justice; his goal is to contain the threats yet keep them in the system, where they can be used to regulate the chaos always looming at the gates.
With so many characters introduced into the mix and tangents to follow, A Most Wanted Man never gets bogged down in overly plotted schematics or drifts far from its central figure — Günther. The international war on terror, as drawn up here, is straightforward and relatively clean.
The complications arise primarily through the tangled intimacies in Günther’s character.
He is the spy who trusts no one but builds relationships where it is incumbent for his contacts to develop a surprising degree of trust in him. His assets in the field, those operatives he has created or turned to gain access and information, pass along whatever they can and do whatever is asked of them because they have come to appreciate that Günther is a man of his word, and he will do everything in his power to protect them. Mistakes in his past haunt him — lives have been lost and it is hinted that his presence in Hamburg is a demotion of sorts for a likely tragic failure — and impact each decision he makes.
Rarely in contemporary film are we asked and/or expected to identify with so wounded a figure. Our heroes, the one Hollywood narratives supply to meet our wants, have one simplistic episode that they share with us (and generally a female stick-figure) to distract us for a moment before the next action set piece and the inevitable redemptive bit of explosive force.
Günther, in contrast, is more than what we might want. We need Günther and more like him to hold a mirror up, a reflection of life as something more than the ongoing series of random events barely in search of linearity. Günther challenges us to question our values and the meaning of our lives beyond faith and/or what we think we understand.
Corbijn orchestrates the scenario, hidden behind the camera and Andrew Bovell’s screenplay, but for all the focus on Günther and Hoffman’s deeply lived-in performance as this flawed man, the director should be the real target for discerning audiences. With The American and now A Most Wanted Man, he has proven to have an interest and a strong capacity for revealing secrets in his leading men.
Yet it is his background in still photography that might explain his unique talents. Corbijn’s initial fascination with Joy Division (lead singer Ian Curtis was the subject of Corbijn’s first feature film, Control) led him to secure work as a regular photographer for New Musical Express, eventually branching off to shoot bands like U2 and R.E.M. before transitioning into making music videos with Depeche Mode, Nirvana and Metallica. But those stills, the freezing of moments — allowing viewers to study the images to reveal their invisible clues — they contain truths that Corbijn hunts for as he develops these targets for audiences. And just like Günther, Corbijn seeks to protect his interests by cultivating our trust in him. (R) Grade: A- (tt stern-enzi)