Mark Reviews Movies

A Most Wanted Man


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Anton Corbijn

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Willem Dafoe, Homayoun Ershadi, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Robin Wright

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 2:01

Release Date: 7/25/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 24, 2014

The man once said that the triumph of evil is guaranteed if good people do nothing. It's a noble maxim, and its nobility has assured that the truthfulness of the statement goes without question. Of course, it presumes too much: There are good people, and there are evil people. We know this is not the case. At best, the saying is woefully incomplete. The thought is that good people need only do something. What if good people do what they believe to be the correct thing, and it turns out to be wrong? This question is the driving, haunting undercurrent of A Most Wanted Man.

The film tells the story of a man who knows the logical shortcomings and erroneous assumptions of that opening statement. He is the head of an anti-terrorism department that is "known by very few and liked by even less." He understands the nuances of reality, where even the good people have "a bit of bad" in them. The matter is one of degree.

He knows that a man convicted of terrorism in Russia may be not only innocent but also an innocent. The man could be the victim of torturous interrogation techniques that would make even the most hardened of people confess to anything.

He knows that a man who passes money to a front for a terrorist organization may be uncertain of his actions. If 90 percent of the front's activities actually benefit those in legitimate need of food, it also means that at least 10 percent of the man's conscience has a difficult time signing the papers that will indirectly fund terrorism.

Above all, he knows that the convicted-but-possibly-innocent terrorist leads to the conflicted moneyman, who leads to someone else. Each step up approaches something closer to a concept of evil.

Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final lead performance), though, operates in an apparatus that either cannot afford or is unwilling to see the world in grayscale. There is only black and white—good and evil. Even the agency's office, with its yellow walls and retro architecture, seems like a throwback to another time—another way of thinking. Bachmann and his worldview don't fit in this place, but he is still a prisoner to it—locked in the glass cage of a conference room that sits in the center of the office.

It's about immediate results, and there is nothing immediate about a thorough investigation of the players' movements and motives. Nab them, and bag them. That gets the headlines and the top stories on the evening news. It's not important if the correct thing has been done so long as something—anything—has been accomplished.

The story begins with the arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim who escaped from a Russian prison, in the port city of Hamburg, Germany. He is sheltered in the home of a man and his mother, and Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a liberal attorney working for a social justice organization, has decided to help him obtain asylum. There is also the matter of a great sum of money in a local bank run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). The money came from Karpov's father, a Russian soldier who—among his many crimes—raped Karpov's mother.

Bachmann is tracking Karpov's movements, hoping that the escaped prisoner will lead him to Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim activist who appears legitimate but whom Bachmann believes has been funding terrorism through a shell company. A rival agency wants to arrest Karpov immediately, but Bachmann finds an ally in Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a representative from the U.S. embassy in Munich who has an interest in Abdullah.

The plot is complicated but can be summed up with that old, investigative chestnut: Follow the money. The screenplay by Andrew Bovell (unsurprisingly, based on a novel by John le Carré) is not as concerned with matters of plot as it is with the mysteries of morality and justice playing out behind the scenes.

Bachmann is not a "good" man, even though society and the government have basically labeled him as one in his role to avert terrorist activities. He understands the contradiction, and perhaps it's that self-awareness that makes it easier for him to see his targets more clearly than his colleagues. Bachmann is a heavy drinker. In his previous job, he lost a team during a botched mission, and no one will let him forget it—not that he needs the reminders. He is not above bag-and-grab techniques, extra-Constitutional detentions, or abusive interrogations for those who might be able to help him. Hoffman plays the character as one straining to maintain stillness, as if he has no greater desire than to jump out of his skin.

If there is one thing that unites these characters, it's a sense of righteousness. We've seen that sentiment abused throughout history, especially in the context of the "War on Terror," and there are no exceptions here. Bachmann's professional rival (Rainer Bock) expects arrests quickly, lest there is "blood in the streets." Abdullah believes money going to terrorists is a troubling but acceptable offshoot of his philanthropic work. Karpov wants to atone for his father's sins without fully considering where the money is going. Sullivan sees any action as a tolerable one, given that she truly believes that it will result in "saving the world."

We want to give Bachmann the benefit of the doubt here, but there is still the nagging suspicion that perhaps his idea of comprehensive inquiry is just as naïve as Sullivan's view of the goal of the work at hand. He may be correct in his assumptions, but we cannot help but contemplate the terrible ramifications if he is wrong. With A Most Wanted Man, director Anton Corbijn has crafted a thoughtful and ultimately mournful film about the games spies play and one man who sees through them.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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