There is something about the world of John LeCarre that appeals to me. Yes, his stories are essentially spy thrillers, but brought down to a much more human level. There are no gadgets, no super villains, no femmes fatale. There are only men and women trying to score a win where they can and trying desperately to avoid a loss. Living this way takes its toll on these characters, to the point that they seem to no longer believe in their cause, but fight for it anyway. Why? Because they can’t do anything else.
I’m familiar with LeCarre’s stories and characters largely through the film adaptations of them. Movies like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tell stories of disillusionment in the midst of death and danger. In the attempt to make the world a better place, his characters have come to know exactly how that world works. They know how close we regularly come to complete meltdown, and they know what has to happen to prevent that. They are on another plane of existence, able to see what nobody else sees.
For decades, LeCarre focused on the Cold War, which must have been its own special brand of hell for those involved in the fighting of it. Always at a simmer, trying to avoid a boil, for years on end. Never really sure if the enemy is as bad as we think he is, but never allowing those questions to develop too fully.
As time has gone on, the Cold War has been replaced by the ever-present War on Terror. This war is relatively new, but remains just as soul-deadening. Explosives going off in the middle of crowded cities, suicide bombers, and and hijackers. The threat is very real, and prevention is top priority. But, unlike most other wars, everything in the War on Terror is covert. The threat can come from anywhere. So paranoia becomes the resting state of those involved in anticipating and stopping terrorist attacks. It must be an exhausting way to live.
And it is in the middle of this atmosphere that we get A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn. The story involves a Muslim Chechen man immigrating into Germany. He is immediately targeted as a possible terrorist and pursued by a crack anti-terrorism team lead by Gunther Bachman (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The team quickly determines that this young man is not a threat, but is merely looking for refuge in Germany. However, he does bring with him a lot of money inherited from his criminal father. The team decides to use the young man and his money to flush out a philanthropist who secretly helps finance terrorist organizations. Their plan isn’t to stop there, though. Once they have the philanthropist, they have access to an entire network of terrorists.
So, here we are. A serpentine plot that doesn’t stop at the Chechen immigrant, nor even at the duplicitous philanthropist. These are merely steps towards the real prize. But, of course, this is all easy to theorize about. When it comes down to it, we’re dealing with people, who have their own beliefs, feelings, and loyalties. They may not understand that they’re not the ultimate goal, and may act irrationally to protect themselves.
Then there’s the government officials who are less interested in final results and simply want a quick fix. They listen to Gunther’s plan, but they’re just as likely to pull the plug before the final goal can be achieved, just so they can say they were able to make an arrest, sending weeks of hard work down the drain, and ruining a handful of lives in the process.
These are the obstacles our protagonists must overcome. Nothing new, really, but it’s starting to really overwhelm them. As Gunther, Hoffman crafts a character so jaded and tired that he can barely muster the energy to convince himself of his plan, much less others. And yet when things are coming together, we see the exhilaration in his eyes. We see an idealist- so often frustrated by his circumstances- finally getting the opportunity to make a real difference. We are almost excited for him, but we can tell by his drinking, chain-smoking, and general demeanor that this isn’t the first time he’s felt this and been ultimately disappointed. The character is, in many ways, a not-too-distant cousin of his character in Charlie Wilson’s War. But where that character has responded to his bureaucratic environment with self righteous anger, Gunther has started to become sad and defeated. We feel as though this is maybe his last hope. If this mission fails, it’s all over, one way or another.
The rest of the actors also turn in real, lived-in performances. Rachel McAdams is an idealistic lawyer, crusading for the rights of Muslims. Her involvement often puts her at odds with Gunther, but she eventually starts to understand the ways of the world. In a way, it is heartbreaking to watch her transformation, but we also seem to understand that it is a necessary change. Robin Wright, channelling her character from House of Cards, strikes just the right tone as the shady, vague American official overseeing the mission. We feel like she might be treacherous, but she might also just a mirror image of Gunther, trying to push her feelings aside in the face of possible life-changing disappointment.
The real standout for me was Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is, of course, always a reliable actor. But, for the last several years, he has specialized in playing weirdos and villains. And when we are introduced to his bank manager character, we immediately assume there’s more going on here than meets the eye. But, in fact, the character is just a normal guy trying to do the right thing. He’s in over his head, and he knows it. Dafoe is able to shed his offbeat mannerisms and deliver a straightforward performance that is so important in a film like this. In many ways, he represents us. He wants to be helpful, but doesn’t really know what that might mean.
These are all credible characters populating a believable world. This isn’t an expressionistic land of shadows and darkness. There is an odd interrogation room here and there, but the action mostly takes place in office buildings and luxury cars. This creates the sense that there is indeed a world underneath the one we live in, but still existing right in front of us, in the most mundane of places.
Anton Corbijn does such an expert job of managing his tone that it’s worth noting that the film is often incredibly tense, even when somebody is simply signing a document. We know the stakes, and know how tenuous everything is. We know the value that these characters put on these events, and we’re invested, too. We want this war to end. Just like Gunther and his team, we’re tired of the deadly failures and the collateral damage. We just want a solid foothold. Maybe then we’ll be on our way towards a safer world. But, of course, in the back of our minds, we know that such a thing may never be possible. And though that knowledge can sap our joy , we continue on, hoping that maybe this time will be different.