The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s outing as ‘German’ terror detective Gunther Bachmann is hamstrung by the same defect that up-ends the protagonist. It is so concerned with having a ‘grown up’ dialogue on terrorism, that it becomes the personification of a grey area. It is bereft of warmth, colour and interest. Of course, it’s not without it’s redeeming features – but they come too little too late for an audience fast losing interest.
First things first; and I know it’s probably not the most astute thing I could pick at in this film about espionage in the fallout of 9/11, but let’s be honest, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ‘German’ sounds Welsh. It might sound harsh, but that made it hard for me to take such a po-faced lecture seriously, whilst imagining the rotund Agent Bachmann cantering through the streets of Swansea in chase of bloody Al Qaeda, look you. I also know I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but that’s the most interesting thing about his last performance to be released within his lifetime; which is frankly very sad. Aside from the (ultimately too tricky) Hamburg-valleys lilt Hoffman was asked to adopt, he was given precious little to do in this adaptation of John le Carré’s thrill-light thriller. He does a bit of heavy breathing, and occasionally gives off exerted grunts – but to be blunt, I’m not sure that was acting in his condition.
It’s not that I’m not a fan of Big Phil, indeed, as his captivating and charismatic turns in Capote and The Master show, when he wanted to be he was a supremely talented, unparalleled screen presence. And it’s not that I’m against the slow burning subtlety you often find in le Carré adaptations either. I was a huge fan of The Constant Gardener and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which were both clever, and emotionally engaging, often centring as much on eerily quiet conversational set-pieces as on the occupational hazards of conspiracy and espionage. There is just very little to attach you to any of the characters in such a way in A Most Wanted Man – which seems like a huge missed opportunity having cast Hoffman.
Indeed, the most interesting character isn’t Gunther at all, and is barely given 2 minutes dialogue in a film that seems to have a running time of 2 calender years. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a man fleeing torture and genocide in his native Chechnya, has a back full of scars that says more of substance about why people turn to extremism than any of the two-dimensional ideologues that hobble about the screen for the majority of the film. It speaks of a life of persecution and desperation, and of a man who is not inherently evil, but has literally nothing left to lose in the face of such complete and abhorrent oppression. This is the most meaningful statement the film makes, and I’ll commend it for that much, as we are clearly supposed to feel a degree of contempt for the competing strains of conservative thought personified by the rest of the cast.
Indeed, director Anton Corbijn does well to play this against Gunther himself, who eventually emerges as the biggest hypocrite in all of Hamburg. All along he is presented as ‘anti-terror lite’; the Coke without the sugar, ‘security’ without oppression, war without bloodshed – rather than black bag suspects, he hopes to simply reconcile them with his system of values to maintain order – or as he sees it “make the world a safer place”. And yet in the end his actions and his ideology are little more than an enabling force for the true nature of the West – one where the preservation of an imperialist status-quo trumps liberty every time – and one that ultimately makes the world more dangerous as ever.
By dodging the bigger structural questions of just why people might want to attack Western targets – like numerous invasions and subsequent plundering of resources, like illegal abductions, torture and murder, like offering political and financial support to some of the Middle East’s most villainous despots – and instead focusing supremely on individual experiences, Gunther completely fails to challenge the systemic injustice that creates the problems he is employed to tackle. By giving any ground, any credence at all, to claims that what the West does is justified because of a beheading in Beirut is to support the cyclical, self-fulfilling promise of NATO et al’s interventionism. Other people hate us because we invade their land, and we invade other people’s land because they hate us.
This all makes AMWM a worthy antidote to Kathryn Bigelow’s infantile and depoliticised The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, which both treat the war on terror’s effect as fuel for adrenaline junkies, and bemoaning their careless heroism whilst neatly skirting round the cause for it in the first place – however, it’s depressingly less engaging than either of those films, so unlike them, nobody will remember it! For now, it seems the devil has all the best tunes. As interesting as certain points are to think on, post-coma, A Most Wanted Man does comparatively little to prevent the curse of ‘numb bum’ over the course of a turgid two hours. The points of nuance and intrigue are too few and far between, and in the mean time, no character ever fleshes out enough for us to be tricked, really tricked, into believing them as human beings – or worse, as human beings who are dangerously susceptible to believing their own bullshit.
For that reason, as well as the fact people literally fell asleep in my screening, while I can imagine this film will undoubtedly find its way onto the course outline for numerous universities Political Science modules – it cannot really be said to have given a springboard for a broader conversation on the war on terror. Beyond the fallout of Hoffman’s death, it will most likely cease to be A Most Wanted film for anybody but dusty academics.