Spying his way through terror

Spying his way through terror

The prospect of going to see a new John Le Carre spy thriller has always been an exciting one for me. You just know that even if the movie turns out to be not a very good one, the fact that it is based on a Le Carre novel will be enough to hold your interest.

Add to that how very few Le Carre adaptations there are, and how one has to wait for years to see a new one to realise why a new Le Carre movie in the theatres is a highly anticipated event. I’m glad, then, to report that A Most Wanted Man, the newly released John Le Carre adaptation which is also Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film, is a small triumph.

Modest in scale, tense, and with a brooding European setting, it reminds you of vintage Le Carre — The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, Call for The Dead and A Small Town in Germany. At the centre of it is a quietly remarkable performance by Hoffman: very underplayed, restrained, almost as if he is plodding through it but it’s really a bomb that has been ticking along, exploding at the end.

And I have to say I was right in feeling some months ago when I heard, just after Hoffman’s sudden death, that this was to become his last film, that this would be his swan song, his most unforgettable role.

It’s the damaged, grizzled, veteran spy he plays here, Gunther Bachmann, that makes this such a deep, complex, haunting character, one that he could immerse himself into. He has a permanent stubble and chain smokes; his hoarse voice soaked in cigarette smoke, he drags deeply to the stub before flicking it and lighting another. Overweight with a pasty complexion, his diet is junk food and hard booze.

Another reason that makes me set off confidently to see a Le Carre movie is knowing there will be a moral core to the story’s resolution and that geo-politically — whether dealing with the Cold War or the more contemporary hot subject of terrorism — his take on foreign affairs, spy agencies, international businesses, corporate corruption and personal relationships will be politically nuanced, more left than right, with the West, especially America and the CIA, coming in for strong criticism and blame.

Hoffman as Gunther Bachmann heads a counterterrorist outfit in Hamburg: they work a little outside the law, doing things the German Secret Service can’t do officially and openly, and so remain deep in the shadows.

His previous posting was in Beirut but apparently he screwed up there (we never learn why or how, but the end gives us a hint) and was relocated to Hamburg with this new assignment of forming a secret anti-terror squad.

For some years now, Gunther and his team have been watching a philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) who may have connections to terrorist organisations, using his charity work as a front. But they don’t have proof and they can’t see a way to entrap him.

One day an opportunity suddenly presents itself: a man named Issa, suspected of being a terrorist, enters Hamburg asking for refugee status. Gunther realises fast how Issa can be used as an asset to expose the philanthropist. But standing in Gunther’s way are his superiors and the CIA.

The spy Hoffman plays isn’t innocent or nice — he is fallible and is not beyond using people. But Gunther is still capable of playing this game with some shred of decency and honour.

His colleagues, some of whom are even German Muslims, follow their boss faithfully. His close associate, played by the gifted Nina Hoss, will do whatever a spy has to do, and because this is a spy network that is working outside official channels, she won’t hesitate to infringe on a suspect’s rights or use innocent citizens.

However, none of them have the illusion that what they are doing is really contributing to “making the world a safer place.”This is the dark, compromised world they work in, but still in the old fashioned way: they won’t cross certain lines. Gunther and his people will be tough but not brutal. The game, however, has turned brutal since 9/11.

Gunther and his team break rules to get results, but they won’t use torture or make suspects in custody disappear — his superiors, collaborating with other American agencies, want quick results and if Gunther can’t deliver soon, it might mean Guantanamo for Issa even if he is innocent.

Le Carre sets up his protagonist against this new spy regime where torture has replaced spycraft, and works out a plot to see where Gunther will get with his old ways. The tension and suspense and drama in the film arise from playing this out where the true adversaries seem to be not their suspects, but their own fellow spies!

Another deep pleasure that Le Carre provides is showing how the daily life of most spies is routine work, much of it in the office — earlier we saw them pushing files and tackling paperwork, today surveillance is mostly sitting before a computer, waiting and watching.
 
Hoffman is surrounded by several good actors, from Rachel McAdams playing a young, idealistic German lawyer to Willem Dafoe as a rich banker, both outsiders to the world of spies now suddenly drawn in and forced to play their game.

Directed by Anton Corbijn with a screenplay by Andrew Bovell, A Most Wanted Man is a spy thriller that lingers long after it is over, especially Hoffman’s studied turn as a smart, world-weary spy going up against the philistines of the intelligent community.

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