A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Editor’s Notes: A Most Wanted Man opens in theatrical release today, July 25th.
A Most Wanted Man opens on the still waters of a canal coming to a roil as an undisclosed boat passes by in the waking dawn of the morning. The shot is held for an extended period of time, allowing the atmosphere and meaning to naturally reveal itself. It’s an effective metaphor for the imminent eruption of repressed emotions and surreptitiousness that unfold in Anton Corbijn’s latest espionage tale, adapted from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy author John le Carré’s 2008 novel.
While two entirely different filmmakers, Corbijn matches Paul Thomas Anderson’s instinctive abilities and visual literacy.
Corbijn, whose last film was the great The American and starred George Clooney as a stoic contract killer hiding out in Italy, shows a certain proclivity for showcasing the furtive lives of damaged operatives who rely on their instincts and strategic abilities, while always staying alert and suspicious of their environment and those around them. Corbijn’s point, I think, is that these are extremely savvy, but empty people torn apart by paranoia and cynicism. Daniel Plainview’s bravura line from There Will Be Blood, “I see the worst in people”, constantly reoccurred to me throughout this film.
While two entirely different filmmakers, Corbijn matches Paul Thomas Anderson’s instinctive abilities and visual literacy. Each individual shot is not only loaded with meaning; it’s pleasing to watch- to marvel at. Corbijn has proven to be a more visually concise filmmaker than P.T., whose drawn-out shots in The Master were captivating in the grand scope of 70mm, but seemed too literal and lacked emotional resonance. In A Most Wanted Man, Corbijn can convey a character’s essence in one shot, without obviousness. Consider the final shot of Robin Wright near the end of this new movie; it explains everything about her CIA agent character even though she flies out of the frame in nearly a second.
Unlike most movies today, A Most Wanted Man must be watched carefully- not due to an overelaborate plot, but for those compositions, which shake every so often as if the images could collapse due to their density. Corbijn infuses real rhythm and momentum in his montage sequences, one of the most indispensable yet abused visual techniques in the thriller genre. He pieces together shots so that they build upon each other, escalate the tension, and then crescendo without an overly violent payoff (credit to the film’s editor, Claire Simpson).
Driven by cold and calculated duty, these characters are also emotional creatures, who are vulnerable and prone to manipulation.
Like The American, A Most Wanted Man is cerebral. It studies the way spies organize and execute their plans- it’s more about the psychology of these schemes rather than the explosive practicalities. The film isn’t violent; there’s barely a shot fired. It centres on characters, particularly agent Gunter Bachmann (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who have been in the anti-terrorism business so long they, usually, know how to take action without costing lives. The cost, instead, is one’s soul- especially in a time when after 9/11 no one seems to trust each other much less those who lead them.
What’s effective about A Most Wanted Man is that the visuals, shot by Benoit Delhomme, do not simply convey coldness. There’s a fine sense of detail that elevates the loneliness of the narrow Hamburg streets beyond mere dreariness. Corbijn is proficient at showcasing the way the natural environment imposes itself on the characters. There’s a marvellous scene where Bachmann and his informer Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) talk on a boat as it crosses the canal. Jamal claims he is psychologically broken by this responsibility and cannot continue as Bachmann’s informant. Expecting retort, Jamal receives sympathy from Bachmann who understands the game isn’t easy. As this unfolds, a flock of seagulls swell in the distance creating a sense of unease and chaos.
These elements add an emotional urgency to A Most Wanted Man, which saves it from some of the flatness I found in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There is an emotional membrane overlaying this bleak narrative- to suggest that as logical as these characters may think, their emotions still swirl underneath. You can see that Bachmann has more than a fond working relationship with Irna Frey (Nina Hoss) and also secretly wishes to impress the stony Martha Sullivan (Wright). There is also unrequited interest between banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and human-rights attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), the former who works with the latter for reasons one wouldn’t exactly call professional.
The screenplay, written by Andrew Bovell, thinks deeply. The characters are complex contradictions in their emotions and ideologies, conceived so that they act one way, but feel something completely different. Driven by cold and calculated duty, these characters are also emotional creatures, who are vulnerable and prone to manipulation.
The emotional centre is the relationship between Annabel and Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who escaped to Germany after being tortured by his own native countries. Annabel falls for his frailty- the type of vulnerability all the other major players conceal- but she is eventually forced to betray his trust. Why? As Bachmann and Sullivan state: “to make the world a safer place.” It’s the only cliché that manifests in A Most Wanted Man–and that’s the point. Bachmann and Sullivan use this saying against each other, justifying their subterfuge with moral platitudes. The world as a “safer place”- A Most Wanted Man shows that’s an aim without a target.
A Most Wanted Man is tight filmmaking, extremely well-acted, and full of written complexity. It’s all in the details. Corbijn supplies us with a narrative that is heavy on thought and sparing with over-the-top action. Most of the “action” here comes from characters sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes, and with Corbijn’s storytelling abilities that is all you need.