Is there any author more failure-proof than John le Carré when it comes to adapting novels for the screen? The real life former intelligence officer turned espionage novelist has seen three novels adapted for the silver screen over the past decade and a half to consistent critical appraisal. From the lively performances of The Tailor of Panama right through to the restrained nuance of period piece Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré is surpassed by perhaps only Stephen King in sheer numbers of quality adaptations and even then the ratio of good movies to bad would surely fall in the ex-spy’s favour. But can le Carré and his work, which rose to prominence throughout the golden age of espionage during the Cold War, survive the transformation from page to screen when dealing specifically with post 9/11 subject matter? This is the test levelled against A Most Wanted Man.
As Chechnyan Muslim Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) illegally enters Hamburg seeking asylum, worn-down German intelligence operative Gunther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) leads a team to monitor the immigrant after receiving intel from Russian officials that Karpov is a dangerous terrorist. Using ties developed within the Muslim community Gunther engages in a tactical game of administration and misdirection to direct Issa towards a much more high-profile target as German officials seek to cut short his operation in order to facilitate Karpov’s immediate capture.
What stands out most prominently about A Most Wanted Man is how deeply it explores what the world of espionage actually is; this is less a story about people as it is about spies. An opening scroll of text disclaims that the 9/11 attacks were planned in Hamburg whilst local authorities investigated the offending Cell and ever since then German intelligence agencies have vowed never again to merely observe at the expense of such another tragedy. The story that follows is essentially a counter-proposal to such a mindset with Bachmann fighting vigorously for the right to observe, the opportunity to pick his moments. He frequently reminds his superiors (and the audience) that he is a spy and that monitoring and calculation will do considerably more than just a pair of handcuffs ever could. The choices made by characters indicate two worlds in the intelligence community; those who watch out of hope that they might make the world might be a better place and those driven to act out of fear that the mistakes of the past will re-occur. In the vein of all great political messages the real tension comes from the recognition that neither perspective is inherently incorrect. All the bureaucrats on display are people and all their actions are justified through one lens or another.
It is thanks to this justification that A Most Wanted Man finds its real strength. Although the star-studded cast of Hoffman, Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams portray their characters through thick German accents none of their prowess is diminished and their characters sink even more deeply into the murky waters of ethical sincerity as a result. The story is not one of action, it is one of internal personal strife and although it has a sense of optimism there is no blindness to the realities of the present political landscape. Robin Wright appears intermittently as the sole American character in the film, representing United States interests and her involvement stands out as a representation of that country’s involvement in the world of intelligence; the story is, refreshingly, about German and Muslim characters and the impact terrorism might have on them but the staggering impact with which 9/11 shocked the world means that any such investigation must involve America. They’re too big an element, too clearly a victim in the narrative to ostracize entirely.
Very much a thinking man’s spy thriller, A Most Wanted Man is light on intensity but big on introspection. Those looking for action will be bitterly disappointed but anyone willing to think about the responsibilities and realities of espionage in the modern world will find plenty to take away including some outstanding central performances.
A Most Wanted Man is Out Now in Limited Release.