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How to trap a terrorist


A Most Wanted Man (M). Director: Anton Corbijn. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Rainer Bock. 122 minutes

British novellist John le Carré's fine espionage thrillers have formed the basis for some excellent films over the past decade. The latest, A Most Wanted Man, joins 2005's The Constant Gardener and 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy among those ranks. Credit for this goes to Dutch director Corbijn and Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell, who carefully array the pieces of le Carré's narrative puzzle with a keen eye for the intricacies of plot and the pervasive moral uncertainty that are the marks of le Carré's work.

Credit, also, to the late great American actor Hoffman, in one of his final roles prior to his death from a drug overdose in February this year. He plays Günther Bachmann, a rumpled, hard-drinking intelligence operative in Hamburg who heads up a team that infiltrates the city's Islamic community, with a view to gathering information that will lead them to higher-profile suspects. Bachmann carries with him the shame of a past, badly botched operation, and Hoffman channels the weight of this disgrace into every tic and gesture of his performance. The bittersweet joy of witnessing him at work adds an accidental extra layer to an already complex film.

The German port city of Hamburg was the place where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the September 11 terrorist attacks; the sense of hyper-vigilance that stems from this fatal embarrassment pervades the events of the film in the same way that Bachmann's personal disgrace pervades Hoffman's performance. Interdepartmental relationships remain terse to say the least; in particular, the patient, considered approach taken by Bachmann and his team brings him into direct conflict with one superior, Mohr (Bock), who is impatient to remove suspicious characters from circulation as quickly as possible.

Their mutual animosity comes to a head over the fate of 26-year-old Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant, who turns up in Hamburg and starts making enquiries at a bank about a large account held there by his late father. Bachmann sees the possibility of turning the young man and his millions to the purposes of entrapping a 'big fish', Dr Faisal Abdullah (Ershadi), a respected Muslim academic and philanthropist whom Bachmann suspects of funding terrorists. Mohr grudgingly allows him 72 hours to execute his plan.

Issa in the meantime makes contact with passionate and idealistic human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (McAdams), who is deeply affected by his backstory of imprisonment and torture in both of his native countries; and of bank manager Tommy Brue (Dafoe), who is sceptical about Issa's identity and motives but is won over by Annabel's charms. Both are recruited involuntarily into Bachmann's scheme, which will involve betraying and manipulating Issa in the short term, for a purported big-picture gain in the long-term, including for Issa himself.

A Most Wanted Man feasts on these kinds of ethical quandaries. Even Issa, who among the film's characters can be most accurately described as a victim, must weigh the costs of seeding his new life in Germany with the ill-gotten funds of his father, a brutal Russian colonel. As events unfold, betrayal is weighed against betrayal, and ethics and morality are calculated using the sliding scale of a greater good that is dubbed, not without irony, as 'making the world a safer place'. Safer for whom? Few characters emerge unscathed.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Rachel McAdams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anton Corbijn, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright



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Existing comments

Well, I've read the book, which I found crackerjack, so, after this review I'll just have to see the movie.

Edward Fido | 30 July 2014  

"The bittersweet joy of witnessing him at work adds an accidental extra layer to an already complex film." Tim , how true your words. Phillip Seymour Hoffman was one of my most favorite actors. To sit through the film, yet being constantly reminded he succumbed to the lure of drugs and died from an overdose and is no more with us , superb actor that he was, dominated the film for me. The real world and the sadness that drug overdose brings impeded my enjoyment of "Amost wanted man". A case of real life dominating the make believe of the theatre. May Phillip Seymour Hoffman 's soul rest in peace.

Celia | 31 July 2014  

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