Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Alternate Title:  Diablo Ex Machina

One sentence synopsis:    The head of a secret German counter-terrorism team tries to entrap a terrorist financier by manipulating a Chechen refugee and his lawyer.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. There was little option but to employ them given the issues that arose. You have been warned.

Things Havoc liked:  Phillip Seymour Hoffman's passing earlier this year caught him in the midst of his customary massive workload, allowing us the next year or so to watch him in the various films that were still under production when he died. I've contrived to miss a number of these, boring indie fare as they seemed to be, but this one I was interested in, as John le Carré spy thrillers have a decent pedigree on film, and the subject of this one looked particularly interesting. Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a dumpy, middle-aged spy, as are basically all of le Carré's protagonists, head of a secret group of clandestine bagmen tasked with penetrating networks of terrorist cells both domestically in Hamburg and elsewhere. As anyone who has ever seen a John le Carré film or read a book of his can tell you, Hoffman was made to play a leading role in one of his books. Wandering about in a perpetual half-stooped slouch, Hoffman looks like nothing but another governmental middle manager of the type that seems to grace all the bureaucracies of Europe (and elsewhere). His character almost never raises his voice, doesn't scream or chase people, not even in the midst of enhanced interrogations, and looks ill-at-ease when called upon to report to formal superiors. His techniques rely on patience and surveillance, turning one asset after another to exert pressure against the next one. The skill with which he manipulates people caught in compromising circumstances is impressive, and by the end of the film, when four people are in a room discussing crime, three of whom are actually working for Hoffman, it all seems perfectly natural.

But Hoffman's merely one of many in this cast. Rachel McAdams, an actress I have successfully avoided up until now, actually does a fine turn as Annabelle Richter, a young immigration lawyer who allows ignorance and idealism to drag her way too far into a case she does not understand the particulars of. Watching her squirm as Hoffman plays her like a violin is exquisite, but not as exquisite as Willem Defoe, one of the weirdest men in Hollywood, here playing perhaps the most normal character he has ever touched, a bank manager whose father was involved in unscrupulous business, and who must do what he can to cover himself and his institution against liability and governmental interference. Iranian veteran actor Homayoun Ershadi, of Zero Dark Thirty and Agora, plays Dr. Faisal Abdullah, a seemingly-pro-Western Arab of means and influence whose secret funneling of money towards terrorist cells touches all of this off, his character only ever betraying bare hints of what he must actually be plotting. But the best of the bunch is unquestionably unknown Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin, whose character Issa is a scarred, skittish, half-Chechen trauma victim, who seems to be up to no good when we first see him, and only slowly do we realize is nothing but a scarred, broken refugee, scared and confused by his surroundings. The film plays a brilliant game with this character, using shot construction and expression to give us Westerners the unmistakable impression that we are looking at a Terrorist, only to pull the rug out from under us when he proves interested in nothing of the sort.

If I sound like I'm just reciting actors and their roles though, bear in mind that this film basically IS the actors and their roles, and the situations that such characters are inevitably going to be placed in by virtue of being around one another. We watch as Hoffman watches, as the characters are slowly ensnared in his web, turning them one by one into "assets" to be employed in the furtherance of his cause. And what is that cause? Not the destruction of his enemies nor the death of the aforementioned people, but information. We see Hoffman and his coterie use the Lawyer to get to the Banker, the Banker to get to the Doctor, and the Doctor to go on and get to others, penetrating further and further along until he can reach the actual source of the evil he seeks to fight. Along the way, as best he can, Hoffman does try to do his best for his assets, if nothing else because a carrot and a stick have more persuasive power than the stick alone. The Lawyer wants her client given refugee status. The Banker wants to have his past unexamined by society at large, and as these are things that are secondary to Hoffman's goal, he can get them in furtherance of it. Le Carré's stories are usually like this, procedural spy thrillers that eschew the Bond-esque escapades for realistic investigations on just how intelligence work is properly done.

Things Havoc disliked:  The problem though, is that this is not the only thing that le Carré's stories are usually like. And here's where we unavoidably get to the spoilers, because one of le Carré's other conceits, from as far back as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is that everything to do with the United States is evil.

I mentioned spoilers above. I'm serious.

No, I'm not trying to turn this into another nationalist screed. I'm well aware of US intelligence's less-than-spotless record when it comes to the work we have done, both in the Cold War and the War on Terror. But there's a difference between wishing to point out the CIA's failings, and being obsessed by them. Zero Dark Thirty did the former, showing enhanced interrogations, unapologetically, and showing that they were useless wastes of time and effort to torture undeserving people for no gain. But this film has nothing whatsoever to do with the CIA, save only for the character of Martha Sullivan, the German Station Chief for the CIA played by Robin Wright. Initially this character is somewhat mysterious, as she appears only once in a while, and there mostly to bring up backstory about the main character and bounce ideas off of him, as well as provide the audience with some sense of the ticking clock going on back in Berlin. Fair enough. But in the last ten minutes of the film, this character suddenly morphs into Snidely Whiplash, who swoops in to wreck the operation, beat up everyone with goons, kidnap and destroy people's lives, and all for no conceivable gain whatsoever.

It would be one thing if this trainwreck were the product of ignorance, mistakes, or other elements established somewhere in the film, but it's not. It's instead the inverted equivalent of a Deus Ex Machina, wherein an outside element not previously established suddenly shows up in the middle of nowhere to ruin everything, irrespective of what any of the characters have and have not done up until this point. And why is this somehow an acceptable thing to throw into a movie that had been so scrupulously realistic until this point? Because the element in question is the CIA, and the CIA is axiomatically evil. They need no establishment, no motivation, no background, no characterization, nothing. To le Carré and his filmmakers they may as well be the Nazis, a plot device assumed by all to be evil without need for any such detail-work. A film interested in showing off the ways in which the CIA interferes with domestic intelligence would be one thing, as would one where the interplay between Hoffman and Wright led them to this state. This film however, is so intent on ensuring that the CIA gets mud thrown in their eye, that ultimately, the film would rather do that than actually tell its story, and literally breaks the entire narrative just so that they can make a cheap, smug point about how dumb, stupid, and recklessly evil the Americans are. So evil, in fact, that there's no need to even establish them as so. Their nationality does that well enough. The movie goes on as normal until an evil American who has nothing to do with anything suddenly destroys everything, and then it is over. Curtain up. Credits roll.

Final thoughts:    I don't hate this film. Indeed I quite liked this film up until the very end. What I hate is the underlying assumption behind it, that the need for ideological pie-throwing in the direction of the CIA is sufficient, by itself, to absolve the film from actually telling its story. It's as though le Carré, or Dutch director Anton Corbijn (whose last film, "The American", also suffered from this defect), feel that all they need do is stand on stage and say "Americans, AMIRITE?!" in order to get independent or European film critics to praise his daring exposure of the corruption that lies in the heart of those barbaric cretins from across the ocean. That said, as I once mentioned to a friend of mine whose hatred for a failed ending on an excellent video game was getting the best of him, a film that does everything right except for five minutes of its runtime is still a good film, even if it picks the worst possible five minutes to screw everything up in.

A few years back, I reviewed le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a film that I thought was highly confusing and erratic, albeit good despite. This film is considerably clearer than that one was, but all that managed to reveal is that sometimes an author's proclivities are best left opaque.

Final Score:  6/10

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