In belated tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)
Hamburg's most wanted
Reading Le Carre it's striking to see how much value he puts into stillness and silence. His most dramatic scenes take place in the most muted of places, where noise is not only not present, but unwelcome (I'm thinking of Smiley holding a handful of strings in the climax of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, Alec Leamas being led away in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and then realizing what's going on). Silence for the Le Carre operative is a useful weapon--it draws out the target in an interrogation, forces him to fill the vacuum with noise of his own (hopefully valuable intelligence), deflects notice or attention from others in such a way as to leave the agent free to do what needs doing. More, silence is the mark of the thinking man, the intelligent man. You can easily believe Le Carre's hero (anti-hero, whatever) will slip past Bond or Bourne while they ponder the best way to beat information out of their victim, then vanish before either flatfoot evens ha a clue.
Enter Gunther Bachmann, played with an almost Mandarin sense of mystery by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Bachmann was a big deal once; he operated networks in Beirut which, thanks to American interference, were exposed and destroyed; now he's haunting the streets of Hamburg, picking up detritus here, there, linking one bit of information to another in a series of daisy chains that--hopefully, hopefully--will lead to some significant target. Someday.
Have not read Le Carre's novel; hear from some critics that it's somewhat strident in its protests towards the United States' policy of extraordinary rendition, with its portrait of rude crude American intelligence agents, its story of a one-time torture victim (based loosely on the experiences of Murnat Kurnaz) seeking asylum in the West. Anton Corbijn's adaptation of A Most Wanted Man is in my book anything but: like his previous The American, it's less a story than a study, not of the refugee but of the gruff unshaven German espionage agent tailing him, trying to suss out the young man's role in the city's uneasy geopolitics (Le Carre's boorish Americans have been distilled into the far more ambiguous figure of agent Martha Sullivan, played with sinister silkiness by Robin Wright).
George Clooney in The American was pretty much the whole show; here it's Hoffman, and good as Clooney was (an introverted knot of tension in an otherwise obscure film, with a rather cliche shootout for a climax) Hoffman holds you in a ruthless grip. He slouches, splashes whiskey in his coffee, smokes an endless chain of cigarettes (you could believe he'll die of cancer long before an assassin's bullet) and in a German-accented growl, declare that he's doing all this "to make the world a safer place." Corbijn keeps the camera not exactly zoomed in on him--Hoffman's constantly caught in long or medium shot, the director doesn't seem to believe much in closeups--but aware of him somehow, pointing him out as the dilapidated corner in an otherwise aseptically clean German city.
And it wouldn't work--would be another American, imploding with its own inwardness--if it wasn't for Le Carre's crackerjack script. Fitting in detail after patiently acquired detail, Bachmann constructs a compelling picture: of wealthy Abdullah, possibly contributing to a charity secretly channeling funds to terrorist networks. As with Le Carre's best spies Bachmann plays the long game--prefers the barely-seen objective over the more immediate goal--and the author works the same way, saving the revelations for last, increasing tension incrementally with every turn of the screw. Quite an achievement, I think, that the film's best thrill involves a man with a pen hovering over a sheet of paper, trying to decide whether or not to sign.
What follows--the capture, the quick flurry of guns and agents and shrieking vehicles--is almost anticlimactic. Bachmann seems aware of this too: he's most alive when staring at a video of the target pacing her cell, or peering past a crowd at the man haunting a street corner. The hunt is all, he seems to be saying (in the book is "Bachmann's Cantata," a long and angry summation of contemporary geopolitical history which Corbijn (wisely, I think) leaves out; Hoffman's Bachmann as opposed to Le Carre's is almost inarticulate in his secretiveness); all else is denouement, disappointment, despair.
A powerful conclusion, but Corbijn arrives at it the way Bachmann--the way Le Carre himself--does: by patient accumulation of detail, by understatement and subtle contrast. Like his collaborators Corbijn plays the long game, his gaze fixed on the distant objective somewhere in a barely-glimpsed future.