At the Movies

Michael Wood

At the centre of a wide shot, near the centre of the film, stands Philip Seymour Hoffman: scruffy, genial, large, mildly enigmatic. He is in a city park, trees all around him, leaves beneath his feet. He is waiting for something, or watching for something. An abduction performed by members of his team, as it happens. But alone there in the shot, he seems to be waiting for us. Should we go towards him or let him to come to us? The snag is, he is about as untrustworthy-looking a character as we could wish to see, even if he exudes a scoundrelly charm from every pore. But then, the film suggests, he is also our best or only hope in a bad world – because he has a scoundrel’s sense of honour, and no one else in a position of authority has any sense of honour at all.

The film is Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The city is Hamburg, tagged in a title card as the scene of Mohamed Atta’s activities prior to the events of September 2001, so symbolically a place where one might learn not to miss the kinds of clue one had missed before. If there were any clues. Hoffman is Günther Bachmann, the head of a German counterterrorism unit caught up in a power war among various government agencies. Bachmann is a spy, he insists, not a policeman. His idea is to create networks of information rather than make arrests that stop the flow of information altogether. His colleagues are inclined to think this line is soft on terrorism and short on results.

We know from hundreds of spy and detective novels, as well as from a few historical examples, that bureaucratically-minded bosses don’t care if they get the wrong person as long as they get someone – and that only our troubled hero cares about truth and innocence. But can this result-based frame of mind be as simple and total and empty as is suggested by this film (and the John le Carré novel it is based on)? Is the working principle of the war on terror that real terrorists can keep at it as long as lots of accused terrorists are picked so that everyone seems busy? Only asking.

The film is slow at times, and like the novel is hampered by having too many undramatic pieces of plot to handle. The banker Tommy Brue, bearer of many historical implications in the book, in the film becomes just a messenger boy in a posh suit, the man who can get the money out of the vault. The fact that Brue is played by Willem Dafoe, fresh from his manically scary role as an assassin in The Grand Budapest Hotel, doesn’t help. If Dafoe’s angular relief map of a face is that of a banker, we should rethink most of our ideas about terror.

The plot involves Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), son of a Chechen mother and a Russian general, recently deceased, who stashed vast amounts of ill-gotten currency in Brue’s bank during Brue’s father’s reign. The sins of the forebears are everywhere. Issa wants asylum in Germany (in the novel he wants to become a medical student) but doesn’t want to touch his father’s tainted money. By a path the film decides not to try to describe he finds himself a lawyer, played by Rachel McAdams, who quickly understands that time is limited, that some branch or other of the police will pick the refugee up almost immediately. This is because Issa, although innocent of everything except being half-Chechen and hating his Russian father, is thought to be a terrorist. He has been brutally tortured and burned in Russia and Turkey, and got to Germany by a complicated and devious route. For the police this proves he is guilty – would the Russians and Turks torture someone for nothing? For Bachmann’s group it proves he is not. Well, in the novel, they have other proofs too, picked up as part of an independent investigation. I’m going to stop telling this story now, since I don’t want to spoil the film’s wild, effective and depressing ending. Let me just say that Bachmann cooks up a plot whereby Issa will give his money, with Brue’s help, to a Muslim scholar who does a great deal of charitable work and funds a little terror on the side. This man will be caught and turned and …

In the le Carré novel the idea of surveillance creeps up on us. People are living their lives and then we learn that someone is watching them – watching absolutely everyone’s lives, it seems. In the movie the surveillance is there from the start and we are part of it: we see Issa climb out of a canal, make contact with an iffy old boy at the railway station; we see Hoffman and his group watching these moments. It’s as if the medium was made for just this. It isn’t, and if we are used to feeling like voyeurs in the cinema, we aren’t used to feeling like the thought police, and the movie exploits our worry about this very well. The point of view renders everyone suspect, and every piece of behaviour, however innocuous, becomes potential evidence.

It’s in this context that both film and novel invite us to the most careful moral discriminations. The abduction Bachmann’s gang performs is that of Issa’s lawyer. They lock her away, and wait for her to crack and tell them where she is hiding him. She’s not going to crack. Even under stress Rachel McAdams looks like a movie star, but she is under stress. What makes her decide, in the end, to help Bachmann in his project is his making clear to her that Issa will be killed if any of the other branches of security pick him up. She can let him die by being loyal to him, or save his life by betraying him. If she trusts Bachmann, that is. She does, but only through the intervention of Bachmann’s sidekick.

This person, Erna Frey, played by Nina Hoss, is perhaps the most interesting figure in the film, and her partnership with Bachmann is what holds the whole plot together whenever it is threatening to come undone. Skinny, elegant, beautiful, but with crooked, cruel wrinkles at the corner of her mouth, she is ‘tall, fit and frugal’, just as the novel says, the perfect complement to the disorderly, drinking, endlessly smoking Bachmann. And they are both, within their overheated reactionary context, old-fashioned liberals. They think people are innocent until proven guilty, and they believe in keeping their promises. This is precisely what Issa’s lawyer understands about them. They are unscrupulous in other ways, of course, and will manipulate persons and facts in their pursuit of secrets, but they are not the faceless state. In the novel their relationship is described as a marriage of true spies (‘According to rumour, they had given sex a try and declared it a disaster area’), and in the film they become visual emblems of a sort of unruly mode of rule, both of them ‘good Germans’ in their way. Whether we should entirely endorse this romanticising of manipulators is another matter.

The real bad boy in the film, needless to say, is not the other Germans with their appetite for promotion and easy prejudices, but an American, the CIA chief played with impeccable, icy charm by Robin Wright, hair cut short and dyed black, but otherwise much in the style of her role in the American version of House of Cards. She and Bachmann have a remarkable exchange about their goals, about what all this secrecy and illegality and interference is for. ‘It’s about saving lives,’ she says. ‘Isn’t that enough?’ Later, when all kinds of questions about Bachmann’s scheme are on the table at a meeting, he quotes her in defence of what he wants to do. The difference is that his motive is both sinister and humane. He wants to save particular, named lives and to create informers. She wants to use the idea of saving unspecified lives in the future as an excuse for doing whatever her agency feels like doing now.

A Most Wanted Man is one of three films Hoffman completed just before his death in February. The others are God’s Pocket and one of the Hunger Games movies. The director here is a little bit in awe of him, and keeps filming him as if he were a monument. He smokes too much – not for the character’s health but for the film’s avoidance of cliché. This means we don’t get the extraordinary force and presence we saw in The Master, for example. But we do see an amazing actor who is always making something happen on the screen, and who gets the combined wiliness and helplessness of the character across. Footnote: like most of the figures in the film, Hoffman speaks impeccable English with a faint German accent. An idea that is ridiculous from the point of view of realism, but perfectly judged as a matter of symbolic hinting at place and time. How else would they speak – in a movie, in Hamburg?