Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

      Someone’s Sneakin’ ‘Round a Corner
              Review by Ken Burke       A Most Wanted Man

The last film with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role, a tale of espionage in Germany where various agencies fight each other on how to best handle terrorists.
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When Hollywood loses one of its brightest stars due to (what’s usually called) premature death (although many of us would consider our death premature if we hadn’t clearly resigned ourselves to it yet; when someone dies of a drug-cocktail-overdose, as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in February 2014, you have to wonder if such a resignation wasn’t part of their overall-mindset already, even if the particular deed in question wasn’t an intentional choice—I thank the powers that be, if truly there are any, that I haven’t had suicidal thoughts for many decades now but back when I did I think it would always have been possible that any foolish thing I did might have been at least partially intentional toward ending my life, taking a risk to tempt fate—which is something we’ll never know about Hoffman, but if he was as troubled as reports indicate, even with all of his fame and accomplishments, it’s certainly possible that he was ready to be rid of his demons in one way or another when his tragic loss occurred, maybe more tragic for us than him if he was that tormented to need such heavy-duty-consciousness-relief, but, again, what prompts another person to do anything is not for me to say, as with the equally-tragic-revelation of the death of master-comedian/well-loved-actor Robin Williams, already being called a suicide, even while I was writing this review) there often exists a sort of morbid fascination when we in the mere audience (as Elton John sang after-the-fact to Marilyn Monroe:  “Though I never knew you at all …”; I can’t resist offering the whole song [from the 1973 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album] at com/watch?v=kRBHERttdP4) are given a chance to see his or her one last leading performance, as has been the case with such top-flight-departees as James Dean (Giant [George Stevens, 1956], nominated for Best Actor, along with a previous nomination a few months after his death as Best Actor for East of Eden [Elia Kazan, 1955]), Peter Finch (Network [Sidney Lumet, 1976], won the Best Actor Oscar), and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008]; true, Ledger won his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor but there’s no doubt that his presence as The Joker was what made that film resonate, even with Christian Bale’s marvelous balance in the official lead as Batman; regarding Robin Williams, for me you’d have to really go back awhile to find his last-best-film-role, which I’d say is in Insomnia [Christopher Nolan, 2002])—like Williams, Ms. Monroe didn’t leave us a death-bed-role-for-the-ages either, given that her last-finished-film, The Misfits (John Huston, 1961), preceded her demise by a year with her last projects left unfinished—which brings us to Hoffman as a German intelligence agent in A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn).  With the additional cachet of being a story adapted from John le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name, this film carries a lot of possibilities for serious moviegoers, but they may all have already seen it if they were planning to do so because by the time I get this review posted the film will have been out for about a month but with a very small gross of about $10.5 million so far with the income dropping noticeably even as a few more theaters are being added, so if you're interested go now.

Of course, a film about spying maneuvers set mostly in Hamburg (without a single reference to The Beatles’ early-career days there, thank goodness for avoidance of such distraction) which is all chessboard moves rather than Jason Bourne-ish action (if that’s what you want, you’ll get a lot more in Lucy [Luc Besson; review in our July 30, 2014 posting], along with “heady” sci-fi-stuff about human cognitive capacity but if you haven’t seen that one yet either—and I do hope you do because its premise is quite fascinating [even if it is being berated by some for “bad science,” an odd complaint about a fictional story]) probably isn’t going to pull in the masses much when they have choices among such fare as fighting reptiles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Jonathan Liebesman), fantasy-antihero-superheroes in Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt; quasi-review in our August 7, 2014 posting), and weather-devastation in Into the Storm (Steven Quale), among other available cinematic diversions, but if you’d like to see Hoffman in a finely-acted-serious-role, bringing the curtain down with respect on his career (yes, I know we still have 2 more installments of The Hunger Games to go [Francis Lawrence; 2014, 2015]) with his Plutarch Heavensbee character aiding the rebellion against the Capitol, but I’m sure the emphasis there will be more on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) so I’m glad that Hoffman gets a more worthy option in a lead role to help us remember what presence and nuance he could bring to a part, rather than just seeing him depart in a Futuristic-Sci-Fi-series where he’s subsumed into an ensemble of standard revolutionaries against an oppressive foe.

In A Most Wanted Man, the situation is about the appearance of an illegally-entered-assumed-terrorist, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), in Hamburg (we’re told at the film’s beginning that this is where the 9/11 hijack-attack-plot was finalized so this international-port-city’s been on high alert ever since with Günther Bachmann’s [Hoffman] off-the-books-spy-unit responsible for the sort of necessary deeds unlawful under German law for more official agencies to carry out), who’s spotted almost as soon as he arrives but then becomes an unknown-pawn in a game of wits between Bachmann’s group and the higher-ranking-spies both from within Germany and our own CIA as to whether he should be snatched up immediately to prevent some sort of unanticipated attack or whether Bachmann should be allowed to do what his unit’s all about, use Karpov as a means of getting to more important terrorists who are causing much greater damage and will continue to do so.  What we find out, though, in following Karpov when his lawyer/legal-aid-helper, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams, who seems to have gotten through the entire filming process with never an encounter with a hairbrush), manages to get him out from under surveillance and into a safe house for a bit, is that this young Chechen Muslim has the necessary tools to claim a huge fortune in safekeeping in a Hamburg bank where prominent banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) is an associate of Karpov’s late father, a Russian military goon whose assets were obtained in various cruel and illegal manners, just as Issa was the result of Karpov Sr.’s rape of his mother when she was 15 (she died as her son was born).  Turns out Issa’s no terrorist at all, just a badly-scarred-refugee from his homeland wanting to get that cash into the hands of some organization that could use it for peaceful purposes to aid other brutalized Muslims around the world (such as the ones in Syria and Iraq coming under the heel of the ISIS “caliphate” for the “sin” of adhering to the “wrong” branch of Islam, although such a topical reference is from your opinionated critic rather than a plot point in the film).  This actually plays very nicely into Bachmann’s plan because he wants to use this huge stash as enticement for overt-humanitarian-but-suspected-terrorist-helper, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), to take control of the money from Issa, then divert some of it (as he’s assumed to have done before) to a group supplying arms to violent militants.  Once Bachmann has proof of this, his next step is to use Abdullah as the connection to the even-bigger-fish (hence, his minnow-barracuda-shark analogy in the first suggested video link far below) that he works with, in an attempt to bring down the entire network, not just make arrests of these middlemen which is the goal of Bachmann’s superiors and their American counterparts.

Those of us who spend our ongoing lives blissfully unaware of the calculated governmental-maneuverings occurring on our behalf have little idea of how supposed allies can create chaos for each other as each one wants to shine more brightly in their victories against our common enemies (that is, until recently when Edward Snowden-based-NSA-revelations revealed that our government had been spying on German leadership [and many others, including Brazil, which didn’t make for great diplomatic embraces during the recent World Cup soccer games held there], followed by even-more-recent-disclosures that German ministry workers were still acting as CIA spies for us, further contributing to difficult relations between our nations at a time when we can ill-afford such tensions, making this story even more relevant than its plot intended for it to be, given the circumstantial serendipity of these real-world-shenanigans adding further to the context of what’s tense enough already in the fictional setting of A Most Wanted Man), but in this film we’re given good reason to wonder just how safe our individual countries really are when the international espionage community presumably working to “make the world a safer place” (to quote Bachmann, as the rationale behind his methods) creates such grief among its own disciples, as we learn from conversations between Bachmann and U.S. consul-officer/CIA field-agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, almost unrecognizable to me in this hard-ass-persona), as he attempts to use her influence with his own higher-ups, who finally give him 72 hours to finalize the sting on Abdullah before they take the operation away from him entirely (part of his bargaining position with her is that the U.S. owes him something for previously interfering with an operation he was running in Beirut where our actions compromised his activities, leading to the deaths of some of his agents and a career-reversal for him, landing him in this current position where his unit’s work is essential to the greater goals of the Western-spy-game but whose methods and members are treated almost as negatively by other Western agents as are the terrorists that all of them are trying to identify and defuse).

(Sorry about the terrible quality of the photo here but the publicists don't give
lower-rung-critics like me much variety to work with so I have to use whatever I can find.)
In A Most Wanted Man (a much easier plot to follow for anyone—or maybe just me—who hasn’t read the original novels than was the previous big-screen-adaptation of a le Carré book, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [Tomas Alfredson, 2011; review in our January 6, 2012 posting]), there’s not much trust to go around because almost everyone who seems like they might be in a position of trying to do the right thing is either suspected by someone of not being so innocent (lawyer Richter is trying to help Muslims who’ve been wrongly profiled as terrorists, with a goal of getting asylum in Germany for Issa as he’s truly a fugitive rather than a revolutionary, but she’s bullied into helping Bachmann because her previous efforts have allowed some real terrorists to stay on the loose; Dr. Abdullah [left above] does sincerely preach peace and honestly raises money for nonviolent purposes but his anger at military actions against Muslims by First-World-countries justifies for his internal rationale the siphoning off of some of what he collects to be used for military actions; banker Brue is just trying to find a balance between handing over funds that legitimately belong to Issa while accepting Bachmann’s cooperation-pressure to help set up the sting on Abdullah because his bank is a repository/laundry-service for ill-gotten-gains from various foreign thugs such as Issa’s father; even Abdullah’s son, Jamal [Mehdi Dehbi], is spying on his father for Bachmann, although he’s heartsick about doing such but is bullied like the others by Bachmann’s unrelenting determination to keep his plan in motion) or is a member of the surveillance community with the stain of blood on their hands, even as they claim that their actions are for the greater good (although as Bachmann angrily notes to one of his antagonist “colleagues,” who’s worried that if Issa is allowed to stay on the loose there will be “blood on the streets”: “Have you ever seen blood on the streets? Clown.”).  However, the maneuvers that Bachmann uses against the others noted above come back to haunt him just after the sting goes down in Brue’s bank.  With video evidence secured that Abdullah amended the list of charities set to receive Issa’s money (with him now in possession of a proper passport so as to have the promised asylum in Germany, along with being in attendance with Richter at the transfer of control of the contents of the Karpov account), adding the shipping agency that serves as the cover for terrorist arms deliveries, Bachmann, disguised as a cab driver, awaits Abdullah’s exit onto the street where he plans to whisk him away to his unit’s facilities, then use the evidence against him to compel his cooperation in capturing the more substantial terrorists “fish” that were Bachmann’s target all along.  Suddenly, in the midst of the whisk, the cab is surrounded by the other German operatives (under the watchful eye of U.S. agent Sullivan), who grab both Abdullah and Karpov, violating their previously-agreed-upon-procedure (presumably for the immediate glory of the capture, probably accusing Issa of being a contributor to the financing of terrorism), again leaving Bachmann as the stooge, the dupe of his own supposed-allies, as everything he promised to Richter, Karpov, and Jamal has been undone without his knowledge or cooperation, leaving them all in despair.

In his frustration, Bachmann just drives away from the scene of the double-cross, then parks his car and walks away with the camera still looking out through the windshield onto the street as the film comes to an abrupt halt.  I’ve read some speculation that maybe Hoffman’s scenes hadn’t been completely shot before his tragic demise so that’s why we just lose him so quickly at the end of this story, but I call that unlikely journalism in that he was at the Sundance Film Festival last winter to help promote the film as screened just prior to this death; however, even if some reshoots-before-release had been considered, this conclusion still works very well for me as it shows Bachmann very much out of control of his life (and profession), storming away to an unknown destination (maybe just one of the many bars that he frequents, maybe somewhere related to the various intelligence agencies that have betrayed him) where we have no idea if his inability to act out his intentions will continue, with no indication that he’ll be able to recoup anything of any value for himself or those he’s been forced to leave hanging as the planned strategy is completely yanked out from under him by fellow-workers in his own shadowy field who seem to care nothing about what impact their actions have on Bachmann and his now-lied-to-collaborators, even as they’re all seemingly working toward the same goal of identifying terrorists before foiling Bachmann’s plans before they can be implemented.  A Most Wanted Man is a very effectively-disturbing-film, made all the more so by the ongoing surveillance scandals that imply that no one (not even U.S. Senate staffers) is safe from the actions of various national intelligence agencies who may have their own agenda for how international policies are determined, acted upon, then covered up as needed, so that what we witness here becomes even more chilling than I assume le Carré or Corbijn intended, although I’m sure that neither of them is naïve about how things work in the hidden halls of power.  I’m very sorry that we won’t have any further opportunities to see Hoffman command the flow of a film (along with his Best Actor Oscar win for Capote [Bennett Miller, 2005], I highly encourage a visit to The Master [Thomas Paul Anderson, 2012; review in our September 27, 2012 posting, only 1 of 2 films to which I’ve given 4 ½ of my 5 stars] for a demonstration of what this master thespian was capable of) nor see him interact in new ways with old pros as well-honed as himself (such as Defoe, with his nervous, enforced-willingness as a guy with a lot to lose as his own under-the-table-work stands ready to be revealed).  But, if he had to go, at least Hoffman left us with a fine exit act to remember him by in a performance that might be honored next January when Oscar nominations come out (although it’s way too early to anoint any film or anyone connected to any film just yet, until the whole parade has passed by; further, I just hope that his depressed-smoking-drinking-mumbling-character isn’t somehow interpreted as Hoffman in the throes of suicide-contemplation rather than an appropriately-chosen-acting-style on his part), so if the subject matter intrigues you or you just want to see a well-balanced, talent-suffused cast take command of a tightly-constructed-script I highly encourage your attendance at a screening of A Most Wanted Man, but find it very soon.

As for my usual concluding Musical Metaphor, I’ll offer “A Most Peculiar Man” by Simon and Garfunkel (from the 1966 Sounds of Silence album) at https:// watch?v=3YTgwY1Ld 5s&list=PLS4eJrnsJb0Vj VaXXlyY90GjuVj5lT Mhr (from a site that begins with the original album version but has 62 videos related in some way to this song, including a few live recordings of the duo, some with video from their performances, along with some cover versions by other singers) because it’s more truly a metaphor for this film than some of the more-obvious, not-really-metaphoric-choices that I’ve made for other cinematic subjects I’ve reviewed.  I get the sense at the end of the narrative when he leaves his car that Bachmann could be on the verge of suicide, as was the subject of Simon’s song before he took that final step; further, whether Hoffman intended to die when he did or not, he seems to have been much more of a troubled “peculiar man” than almost any of us knew (in public, he wasn’t the quiet, gruff loner described in the song, but maybe he felt that way “Within a room, within himself”), with the sad result the same for both of them: “all the people said ‘What a shame that he’d dead’” (even though few even knew the victim in Simon’s song).  And—as the music fades—just one more thought before closing the book on my responses to A Most Wanted Man, a question to any of you reading this about actors using accents to indicate that they’re speaking in another language among themselves within their story, even though what they’re offering us is English (I can’t recall seeing this trope used in films that originate in non-English-speaking-countries, but I rather doubt it given the more accepted use of dubbing dialogue or using subtitles when films are produced in those countries primarily for home-country-and-similar-language-locales, so that if a German production is supposed to be set in France, for example, then I’d say the spoken language will likely be French [or dubbed French] rather than German spoken with French accents).  It’s clear that when Bachmann and agent Sullivan have a dialogue that they’re both talking in English (well, she’s an American stationed in London; we can’t expect her, even with her frequent clandestine activity in Europe, to know non-English European languages, now can we?) so it’s reasonable that they have to communicate in a common tongue, with him adding a natural German accent (although given that this events-beaten-down-character doesn’t always enunciate all that clearly it can be a bit hard to understand him, even if we do share the same linguistics), but when the bulk of the film features Germans talking to other Germans, why do we have to have these imposed accents?  Is it for some sort of continuity because of those few scenes where Bachmann does have to actually speak English even though his first language is German?  Does that really help us feel like we’re watching something taking place in Germany?  (The film was shot in Hamburg, which already seems obvious enough in its depictions of the place to seem feasible about the location.)

(The photo quality of this image from Casablanca isn't great either;
thanks Internet.  Can you tell I'm getting tired of having to scrounge
for whatever may be available just because I'm not on the rarified
privileged press lists?  I hate to post anything that looks this crappy.
Maybe I'm just bummed out because of the undercurrent of dead
actors that haunt this review.  If so, I offer my apologies for letting
my emotions get the best of me as I mourn these sad losses.)
  I know this sort of thing has been used for decades in American films, but for some reason it really hit me as artificial this time (and made me think back on other such uses of accented-English-dialogue which led me to Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942] where the Germans do speak their native language with each other but logically have to use accented-English to speak with monolingual Rick [Humphrey Bogart] and others not of German origin [just as it makes some sense that English becomes the common parlance within Rick’s Café Américain for all of the various nationalities, including Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) with his mild, ambiguous Eastern-European-pronunciations], but when Captain Renault [Claude Rains] and other Frenchmen speak among themselves they use English, with Renault sounding a bit British [reflecting Rains' origins] and not much sense of a French accent among his underlings, so based on the “we-Americans-need-to-know-what-language-they’re-speaking-without-having-to-read-subtitles”-rationale, I’m just as confused with the premise in this classic as I am with A Most Wanted Man).  Certainly, this minor curiosity of mine shouldn’t distract you from the many successful elements of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s-forever-linked-curtain-call—in a film where the cinematics successfully support the story with lots of ominous low-key-lighting, closeups within wide-screen-format-compositions to impart a sense of isolation even within a large urban environment where easy movement should be assumed, tension built and maintained all along the way even as the depicted events aren’t all that dynamic as in more action-oriented-spy stories—but if you have a bit of trouble understanding what he’s saying at times you might be more inclined to wonder along with me why this odd bit of distraction is even needed in the first place.  By contrast, another review I’ll post this week, of The Hundred-Foot Journey (Lasse Hallström), takes place in France where native speakers of French and Hindi keep their learned-language among themselves as they collide because of their competing restaurants, using naturally-occurring-accented-English only as a needed-linguistic-parlance but being able to grumble to themselves in a manner that retains some private satisfaction even if an English-speaking-audience has to miss out on a few intra-group-comments from the actors.

I realize that where fiction (and movie marketing) are concerned, we have to allow for a lot of creative license (which allows me to overlook the complaints about the “bad science” in Lucy regarding how much brain capacity humans normally employ compared to that protagonist’s enormous elevation of her cerebral might), but lately I’ve been mulling over that frequent use of accented-English to convey that characters are speaking in another language than our native tongue to each other, wondering how much good it does when the settings, costumes, traditions, etc. should already make it clear enough that these people don’t talk to each other in a manner easily understood by the Anglo-populations of Seattle, Tulsa, or Pittsburgh.  But, then, people such as my parents wouldn’t travel to Europe because they expected everyone there to speak English to them and knew they wouldn’t, so maybe this learned-cinematic-convention didn’t even do much good back in the 1940s and ‘50s, or it was actually some sort of clever reverse-psychology-ploy to encourage American tourists to spend their money in Phoenix or Fort Lauderdale rather than Paris to keep our postwar-economy booming.  More ruminations on this "vital" topic might emerge when I get to The Hundred-Foot Journey in a couple of days, but even if not I sincerely hope that you’ll seek out Hoffman’s final leading-man-bow (German accent and all) either now or later on video.

If you’d like to know more about A Most Wanted Man here are some suggested links: (if you want to fully lose yourself in A Most Wanted Man videos this site has 200 of them, including trailers, clips from the film, reviews, and a good number of offers to stream the entire film [I leave those options to your discretion]) (2:53 anatomy of a scene with director Anton Corbijn)

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P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. I did find Hoffman's depiction a little too "...depressed-smoking-drinking-mumbling..." which had me thinking he was not quite as engaged as he was in his clearly superior Master or Capote characters. Regarding the English versus native language issue, it could be as simple as the actors could not speak German. To dub someone on top of Hoffman, Dafoe, Wright or McAdams would have been far worse than the use of our "universal" language (particularly in film, air traffic control and medical technology). Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright were good and are additional reasons to see it while it's at the theater (although this spy caper will probably be just as effective on cable as on the silver screen; TCM would be an interesting venue for it). I too thought the ending was unsatisfying; it seemed contrived and arbitrary with undo emphasis on American influence over German secret services. While going against general critical acclaim, I think this one missed the mark, it could have been a boxoffice winner with crisper production and a stronger Hoffman performance that we know he was capable of in his prime.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your comments. I can see the value of everything you're saying (although I do think that Hoffman gives the proper performance for the character he's playing, so maybe what we'd both prefer would be a different Hoffman role in another film that called on him to be a more imposing presence). As for the language thing, let me clarify that I'm fine with all of these actors speaking English (yes, no dubbing of them into German, please), but I just wonder if we really need for them to affect German accents as well. I understand that when Hoffman is speaking to Wright we need to realize that his English isn't as first-language as hers is so the accent helps convey that, forcing the rest of the "German" dialogue to be accented as well to make clear that these agents do speak their own mother tongue to each other, not actual English (even though a lot of what constitutes English does have German roots but that's another discussion).

    Anyway, Hoffman, Williams, and Bacall have all now departed from us with only lovely Lauren leaving via natural causes so it's up to us to remember them for the joy they brought to our lives with their varying performances, which at least we now have easy access to given the availability of most any film in some video/streaming format. Ken

  3. A great, great movie. And a masterful Philip Seymour Hoffman.

  4. Hi Thomas, Thanks for the comment. Ken