Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review: "A Most Wanted Man"

Director: Anton Corbijn
Runtime: 121 minutes

Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) was, against the odds, an exemplary adaptation of the work of John Le Carre. That film took a dense novel that was better suited to a mini-series (as it was first adapted), and oriented the central drama away from the whodunnit question, and onto the inner lives of the characters. The film didn't provide much in the way of red herrings or chances to guess who the mole was. Ultimately, that answer was just the destination that capped off a slow-burning journey of secrecy and damaged masculinity. 

Somewhere on a different part of the spectrum (though thankfully not on the opposite end), is Anton Corbijn's (Control, The American) A Most Wanted Man, adapted from the Le Carre novel of the same name. All of the trademarks of Le Carre's espionage stories are present in Most Wanted, yet them come to life with less engrossing results this time around, largely due to some bloated pacing and an anemic screenplay. Alfredson's Tinker masterfully compressed something dense, whereas Corbijn and company wound up stretching something thin close to its breaking point. The sad irony is that Corbijn's barely decent film contains the last performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's an unfitting send off for someone of his stature. 

Most Wanted certainly has its strong points, but the most interesting thing about it is comparing the visualization of a Le Carre story set in the past, and one set relatively in the present. In Tinker, the conversations mostly took place in claustrophobic rooms and corridors. Some of that film's most visually striking sequences were set in a windowless, sound-proofed room. Espionage was allowed to truly take place in secret. 

Jump forward to the 21st century, especially the post 9/11 western world, and you have a much different scenario. Important meetings happen in conference rooms with massive windows looking out over cubicles and desks, and some of the most sensitive topics come up out in the open, in places as mundane as cafes or tacky bars. This is the the age of espionage that can hack and track everyone, yet is also under pressure to be uncomfortably open about its most uncomfortable facets. 

Distinguishing between historical context is certainly more compelling that the drawn out plot. It all begins when a young Chechen Muslim named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) illegally immigrates to Hamburg. Though he seems to have no plans to carry out any terrorist activity, it doesn't take long before Issa's struggle to seek asylum in Germany gets tangled in with an investigation regarding a prominent Muslim figure already in the country. For Gunther (Hoffman) and his small team of co-workers (their group doesn't exist on German intelligence records), Issa's struggle is a chance to, slowly but surely, set a trap for the Muslim figurehead, and possibly expose a money laundering scheme being used to fund Al Qaeda. 

While, Le Carre's novels don't tend to move quickly, but here Corbijn has indulged the author's sense of pacing to a fault. There are more than a few transitional scenes that are utterly pointless, and seem to have been left in under the delusion that these extra moments will add to the overall atmosphere. In The American, Corbijn was able to use gradual pacing to his advantage, despite having a considerably slimmer plot to work with. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to carry that talent over to this dense material. The layers of the plot don't exceed his grasp. Instead, there just seems to be too little thought given as to how those layers should intersect with each other. 

The performances are, at least, convincing, though no one has all that much to work with. The idea of damaged masculinity that was so beautifully inhabited by Gary Oldman in Tinker is also present in Hoffman's role, and the latter does a solid job. He simply doesn't have enough to work with, and so he's left to mostly mutter with a German accent. The conclusion, which sees Gunther pushed to his breaking point, should be a powerful finish to a tale of complicated ethics and ideas. Instead, the impact is minimized but the competently photographed (Corbijn remains a strong visual story teller) lump of story that led up to it. Thankfully, Robin Wright pops up for a few scenes as an icy American diplomat, and her scenes with Hoffman are among the film's best. Meanwhile, wonderful German talents like Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl are mostly wasted.

A Most Wanted Man opens on a shot of sloshing brown water, which is only appropriate given the moral and political murkiness on display. It's too bad that the film as a whole never becomes any clearer on any level. A Most Wanted man looks the part as far as modern day Le Carre stories go. What it's missing is the richness of its present day setting, one that exists entirely in shades of grey with increasingly blurred barriers.

Grade: C+/C

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