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Spies against spies

Film Review: "A Most Wanted Man" 

Spies against spies

When the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the specter of international communism ceased its decades of haunting the frightened souls of the West, many commentators wondered if the espionage novelist John le Carré would suddenly run out of subjects. But the author, one of the best contemporary English novelists, simply applied his talents to other areas of international treachery and criminality -- global corporate capitalism, CIA destabilization of democratically elected governments, American support of tyrants, and of course, since September 11, 2001, actions of right-wing officials in the so-called war on terror.

The new film, "A Most Wanted Man," adapted from le Carré's 2008 novel, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, demonstrates just how current events provide a rich subject for the author's examination of the practice of espionage in our time. The movie involves the quest of a German intelligence officer, Gűnther Bachmann (Hoffmann), for the particular funding source of an Al-Qaeda operation. Typically, that search leads the protagonist through several twisting paths to some surprising and ultimately devastating truths.

The movie takes place in Hamburg, where IssaKarpov (GrigoriyDobrygin), a Chechen refugee who has escaped Russian torture, now seeks asylum in Germany. He attracts the attention of Bachmann's people, who keep tabs on Muslim residents in their city, and maintain a particular interest in Abdullah (HomayounErshadi), a leader in that community.  They discover that Issa has inherited a large sum of money, kept in a bank specializing in laundering cash run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe); the devout Issa wants to donate all his wealth, through Abdullah, to a variety of Chechen institutions -- hospitals, schools, clinics, etc.

That odd situation inspires Bachmann to conduct a series of tricky maneuvers and draws in a number of otherwise innocent individuals. He blackmails Tommy Brue into cooperating with Issa's plans and his own scheme to nail the Al-Qaeda cell by tracing the cash. He also arrests and interrogates Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), the immigration lawyer helping Issa to win asylum.

When the picture shows that Bachmann must deal with a good deal more than his initial task, it captures the typical le Carré fascination with the actual procedures of espionage and the competition among various agencies for information and above all, power. Bachmann's work amounts to a continuing practice of duplicity and brutality, encouraging agents to betray their friends and families, intimidating the innocent, punishing victims, all in the name of protecting his country. He also contends with rivals in the intelligence community, particularly the CIA in the person of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), who harbors her own plans for the handling of Abdullah and the Al-Qaeda connections.

"A Most Wanted Man" employs its locations in Hamburg and Berlin to reinforce the convincing reality of its people and actions. Its constant shifting among its various, initially unconnected people reflects the complications of espionage in a changing world, and endows the author's understated, often cerebral narrative with a fine sense of energy and movement. 

In addition, the actors also participate in the authenticity of their context, a world where tension and danger lurk beneath the surface, where the only explosion of violence occurs as a complete and shocking surprise that ironically demonstrates even deeper levels of treachery. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as usual, excels as Bachmann, a weary, corpulent spymaster fueled by cigarettes and booze, desperate and lonely, contending with both enemies and allies, and apparently willing to do anything to track down his quarry.

Above all, once again faithful to the author's vision, "A Most Wanted Man" also shows the real meaning of espionage, its systematic practice of manipulation and deceit, its endless layers of betrayal. It illustrates the author's continuing obsession with the morality of people who consciously violate the laws they profess to defend, who use and abuse innocent people to achieve a sometimes dubious goal. In its depiction of electronic surveillance, the kidnaping of ordinary citizens off the streets of a Western city, the imprisonment of victims without any charges, the icy cruelty of professional bureaucrats pledged to wage a war against an abstraction, the disregard for anything resembling simple human decency, it actually reflects the world we all inhabit, like it or not.

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