When news came of A Most Wanted Man, I tuned out completely when I heard that it was a le Carre adaptation. Sorry, but I honestly think that John le Carre is overrated. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was a slog to read through, and its recent film adaptation wasn’t nearly as good as its reputation and cast would suggest. Even so, A Most Wanted Man had enough of a sterling reputation that I was willing to try it anyway. And only after sitting through the film did I find out about a crucial missing factor.

I hadn’t cared enough about John le Carre to ever look at his Wikipedia page, so I just assumed that the Cold War-era spy-turned-author had passed on. But nope! He’s still alive and kicking at the ripe old age of 82. Even better, he’s still writing, and his ouvre has left the Cold War to enter the modern day. Which means that now we have a reputed master of spy thrillers spinning yarns about post-9/11 “War on Terror” international espionage. This could be interesting.

We lay our scene in Hamburg, Germany, one of the world’s greatest port cities and therefore a hotbed of immigration. For this reason, Hamburg is where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators were able to plan the attacks of 9/11, safely out of sight from various international bureaucracies screwing each other up. Eager to make sure the past isn’t repeated, Hamburg is now crawling with local and international agencies all screwing each other up.

The premise begins with Issa Karpov (relative newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin), a mysterious half-Chechen/half-Russian refugee who just escaped torture at the hands of Russian authorities. Issa also has ties to certain Islamic terrorist groups, so every lawkeeping force in Germany (including the American embassy, natch) is after him. However, Issa has to stay in Hamburg long enough to connect with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker holding several million euros in an account that belonged to Issa’s deceased father. Who may have been a terrorist himself.

While all of this is going on, there’s the case of Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a man who allegedly runs a charity for the elimination of poverty and religious intolerance. Yet every time a huge donation is made to Abdullah’s company, a little piece of it somehow goes missing. And every time those funds go missing, al-Qaeda shows up with a brand new rocket launcher.

Confused yet? Let me tie it all together.

Our protagonist is Gunther Bachmann, played by the dearly departed Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gunther works for a very small anti-terrorism task force, kept off the books and outside the law. He wants to let Issa run freely — albeit under heavy surveillance — in the hope that Issa’s actions will somehow lead to concrete proof of Abdullah’s criminal actions. Then they can put Abdullah on a leash to build a case against whoever his boss is, and so on further up the chain.

Gunther is playing a very long game here, which in turn means that the pacing could reasonably be called slow. But personally, I think the pacing feels more deliberate. The film takes a great deal of time to establish its characters, which helps to ensure that even the tertiary characters are important and memorable in their own ways. Of course, the sterling cast helps a great deal as well — they got Daniel Bruhl (otherwise known as half of what made Rush so great) to play one of Gunther’s spies, for God’s sake.

So much of the great characterization comes from how nuanced it is. Dr. Abdullah, for example, doesn’t come off as some mustache-twirling villain. We only ever see him as a charitable man trying to be a good Muslim and spread the word that harming innocent people stands directly against the word of Allah. Sure, some of his cash may have gone astray, but we never learn the full story there. He could have been pressured into paying some kind of “protection fee” to radical Islamic terrorists for all we know.

Then we have Issa. Five minutes of screen time are all it takes to show that this guy is not a terrorist. He’s just a guy in a horrible situation, caught between state-sanctioned torture and radical terrorism. Issa is desperate to cut ties and make a new life for himself, but his current situation and his family background make it next to impossible. The guy is in way deep over his head, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.

Speaking of which, we also have Rachel McAdams. She plays Annabel Richter, a young human-rights lawyer with a refugee organization. Annabel catches wind of Issa’s case and agrees to act as a courier between him and Brue until she can find a more stable position for Issa. Basically, she’s aiding and harboring a terrorist suspect, which puts her right in the crosshairs of Gunther’s organization. The poor girl is in so far over her head in so many ways, and watching her come to that realization is riveting. Annabel goes from a righteously naive activist to a thoroughly confused and desperate young woman, and the development is masterfully done. I had long since written off McAdams as just another mediocrity, but her work here blew me away.

Elsewhere, Robin Wright plays an official from the American embassy, which means that she stands in for the CIA, the State Department, and whatever else the USA uses to assert its authority. Wright does a fantastic job with the role, playing her part with such a perfect mix of sugar and venom that it’s never easy to tell how trustworthy she is. Willem Dafoe turns in another noteworthy performance — the guy is normally so campy and over-the-top that it was great to see him in a role with a bit more nuance. Dafoe shows off a few muscles I haven’t seen him flex in a very long time, and it serves as a reminder of how great an actor he really is.

Then we have the star of the show. Being a spy, Gunther is a total enigma who tends to keep his emotions hidden from everyone else. We can see that he indulges in cigarettes and alcohol to a frightfully unhealthy degree, but that’s it. Having such a cypher as our protagonist might’ve gone wrong in so many ways, but Hoffman brings so much to the role that his presence is simply magnetic. He plays the role in such a way that all of Gunther’s years and mileage are plainly visible on the screen. Gunther is compelling because with just one look at him, and without a single word of dialogue spoken, I knew that he was a dedicated and experienced spy who deeply believes in his job. Plus, Gunther looks so weary in such a way that I wanted to know all the crap he had been through. In fact, the film has a minor subplot involving a screw-up in Beirut that Gunther seems hesitant to talk about. Oh, and when Gunther finally does break down and let his temper loose, it’s amazing. Hoffman does so much with raw emotion that it serves to highlight what he wasted when he died of an apparent drug addiction.

But let’s get back to the pacing. This will be the point that either makes or breaks this movie for the audience. The film is very slowly paced and there are several moments in which nothing happens, and that may turn away some moviegoers. On the other hand, the point of the slower moments is to show precisely how much patience is involved in espionage. Gunther’s actions are all about strategy, moving carefully and cautiously until everything is in place and the suspects are ready to turn on each other. Compare that to the other agencies of America and Germany, all of which are so concerned with results that they’d rather arrest everyone first and ask questions later, constitutional rights be damned.

Then again, the film makes it abundantly clear that Gunther is only human. There’s always the possibility that one of his suspects may escape observation and render so many months of time and effort useless. Worse, if even one variable hasn’t been accounted for, it could potentially mean another terrorist attack. Or hell, what if one of Gunther’s spies gets their cover blown? Whether it’s done deliberately or not, that could mean a whole lotta deaths. There’s always that conflict about how much slack to give a potential terrorist subject — just enough to yield some crucial evidence, but not so much that they can slip and cause unmonitored mayhem.

Many of this film’s strengths — namely the tension, the character development, and the red-light/green-light depiction of espionage strategy — are delivered in a way that remind me of Zero Dark Thirty. Yet for better or worse, this film seems far less interested in showing the shadier aspects of post-9/11 international intelligence. The matter of torture is never even brought up, except to say that we don’t do that anymore (or any less). In this way, the film works as a commentary on how far we’ve come since the “War on Terror” heyday of the Bush years, and how far we still have to go.

A Most Wanted Man is a fantastic spy thriller. Between the deliberately-paced script and the uniformly amazing cast, the film is populated with sympathetic characters to help make the tension far more effective. The movie’s depiction of touch-and-go strategy is remarkable, especially when it leads to that gut-punch of an ending. Definitely check it out.

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