Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Most Wanted Man [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Set post-9/11 in the dreary German port-city of Hamburg in autumn/winter, A Most Wanted Man [2014] (directed by Anton Corbijn, screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carré [IMDb]) is a deliberately slow-burning post-9/11 spy story about Western intelligence's attempts to penetrate its Muslim immigrant community (9/11-mastermind Mohammed Atta as well as several others among the 9/11 hijackers had lived in Hamburg previously) an unassimilated community (due to cultural differences and exacerbated by previous racism) that seemed to the Authorities to be about as opaque as the city's sea of grey, featureless concrete and steel buildings and infrastructure and whose intentions were as unknowable yet as threatening as the ever-present storm clouds overhead. 

What to do?  How to get insight into a community that perhaps would never be particularly open / talkative and which after 9/11 would reflexively seek close itself off even more tightly?

Enter Günther Bachmann (played with magnificent precision by the tragically recently deceased Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who _patiently_ heads a clandestine squad from German intelligence, tasked with finding a way into this community using (surveillance?) methods that (as he somewhat proudly proclaims) "the German Constitution would not allow."  His mantra is: "You need a minnow to catch a fish, a fish to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark."

So we see him mostly handling "minnows," in particular a Jamal (played by Mehdi Dehbi) the twenty-something son of a prominent Muslim university professor named Dr. Faisal Abdullah (played by Homayoun Ershadi) who by all accounts _seems_ very clean, an upstanding, if articulate, if then also quite measured leader of the local Muslim community in Hamburg.  The question on Bachmann's mind and on the minds of his superiors in German intelligence back in Berlin AS WELL AS THE CIA hovering in the periphery is: Is Dr. Abudullah _really_ a good guy or is he just being really careful?  In the words of Martha Sullivan (played by Robin Wright) a CIA agent who had worked with Bachmann (in Lebanon) before (and whose work, again back in Lebanon, she had ultimately betrayed before): "Dr. Abdullah seems like a good man, but every good man has a little bad in him, and that little bad in this case may get a lot of people killed."

How to get into the head of Dr. Abdullah?  Well, that's why Bachmann and his team recruited (actually more like "squeezed") Abdullah's son Jamal.  But even a 20-something son doesn't necessarily know all that his old man is doing.

So enter, by luck enters a similarly young, angry, less cautious half-Chechen, half-Russian Issa Karpov (played by Gregoriy Dobrygin).  He arrives in Germany in search of money had been laundered away in Germany by his a-hole of a father who had been a former KGB intelligence officer during the Cold War.  Apparently Issa's Russian KGB father had a rather "unequal relationship" with Issa's Chechen mother.   However, Issa grew-up knowing enough about both -- enough to hate his father and yet know a fair amount about what he did in his job, including that he hid some money apparently in Germany AND enough about his mother to feel more close to her and to her Chechen people -- to come angrily to Hamburg with an admittedly half-baked but somewhat understandable "plan": Get a hold of his father's stashed-away money and put it in the service of the Chechen cause.

Now obviously Issa didn't come to Hamburg, wide-eyed and flailing a gun or Molotov cocktail in his hand demanding of passerbys: "Where's my dad's ill-gotten cash and how can I get a money order out to my Chechen friends in the Caucasus?"  However, he did talk loudly enough to enough people that his presence came to be known by Bachmann and his people.  And he talked loudly enough that his presence came to be known by Germany's robust and well meaning human-rights establishment (seeking to say "Never Again" to anything smacking of the human rights trampling Nazi-era Gestapo or the Communist-era Stasi...) Among them was an idealistic young lawyer named Annabel Richter (played beautifully by Rachel McAdams) who seeks to protect Issa from "the likes of" Bachmann and his squad.  Sigh ... Bachmann dismisses Richter when she first enters the scene in hopes of "protecting" Issa: "So you're a human rights lawyer?  You're nothing more than a social worker for terrorists." 

But Bachmann is not totally unsympathetic to Issa's multi-leveled (and quite personal) predicaments.  However, what he sees in Issa is, above all, his much needed "barracuda."

Can he use the well-meaning Richter and the confused/angry Issa to, with help of Jamal, FINALLY penetrate the inner workings of Dr. Abdullah?  The rest of the story follows ...

This is a very, very well crafted spy-story and will be appreciated by those viewers who do like nuance.  The end may disappoint some viewers (including myself actually) but the overall story is far more sophisticated than the average "chase scene" heavy / "shoot-em up" spy-thriller. And that is something to applaud.  Good film!

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