Monday, July 28, 2014

Spies with Heart: A Most Wanted Man

Reflection on A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn, based on the novel by John LeCarre. 

The "most wanted man" in the title of this spy thriller is Issa Karpov, Chechin rebel, escapee from Russian jail, heir to millions of dollars if he can get them from a bank in Hamburg, and devout Muslim.  Played by Russian actor Grigory Dobrygin, he is quiet, wary, and gentle.  The paunchy, gruff spy manager Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) speaks the essential truth about Issa to the refugee's advocate Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams):  "You and I both know, he's innocent."

The movie begins when Issa painfully lifts himself out of Hamburg's harbor.  Within hours, intrigue swirls around him.  He is the center of attention first for Bachmann's band of domestic spies, then for American diplomats (played by Robin Wright) German security officials, and an Islamic charity organization that may fund Islamist militants.  Richter tries to help him, once she has recoiled from  the scars that establish his refugee credibility.   Meanwhile, he waits. 

The director Anton Corbijn gives us striking visuals to set the witty banter among powerful people who don't trust each other.  We see sharp edges and gleaming surfaces where Bachmann meets officials, banker William DaFoe.  But Bachmann and his associates meet in grimy bars, lonely wharfs, and a subterranean warren of offices where desks are piled high and the bulletin board is layered with photos and clippings. 

Some of the visuals suggest the subtext of scenes, as banker William DaFoe, shaken by a demand to take courageous action, goes home to a glass house that seems a metaphor for both his vulnerability and the coldness of his marriage.  Ice cubes hurled to the flagstones punctuate the scene.   Richter puts up Karpov in her brother's spacious unfinished apartment.  Sheets of plastic hang to mark where rooms will be, making a maze of semi-transparent barriers through which the two of them gradually find each other in a relationship of trust on the border of love.

As my friend Susan observed early on, "It's Le Carre, so you know it's not going to end well for anybody."  Still, as the plot unwinds, we see the pieces of Gunther Bachmann's intricate plan fall into place. I've been left cold by other spy movies, where it was all about the plan.   Here, we're rooting for the innocent man and a whole community of people risking their lives to help him.   

No comments: