Describing something as “boring” is a cardinal sin among critics. It is often used as lazy and reactionary short-hand, sniping at something which the writer didn’t agree with, but which they can’t be bothered to explain why. In the case of A Most Wanted Man, though – a film which I heard several audience members at the Norwich Odeon literally snoring through, back in 2014 – I have to concede “boring” is an apt description.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s posthumous outing as German terror detective Gunther Bachmann is hamstrung by the same defect that up-ends the protagonist. Adapted from a John Le Carré novel of the same name, A Most Wanted Man is so concerned with having a ‘grown up’ dialogue on terrorism, that it becomes the personification of a grey area. It is bereft of warmth, colour and interest. It’s not without any positives – but they are too few and far between to maintain interest in its bloated run-time.
First off; it might not be the highest-minded aspect to pick at in a film examining post-9/11 espionage, but it’s unavoidable: Hoffman’s ‘German’ sounds like it is fresh from the green, green grass of Wales. Some people might be willing to look past this; but for many more, imagining the rotund Agent Bachmann waddling through the streets of Swansea in chase of bloody Al Qaeda will have made it difficult to take the film’s po-faced lecturing seriously. Look you.
Sadly, Hoffman’s character falls flat in this respect. It is the most interesting thing about his last performance. Aside from the tricky Hamburg-valleys lilt Hoffman was asked to adopt, he was given precious little to do in this thrill-light thriller. He does a bit of heavy breathing – and occasionally gives off exerted grunts – but to be blunt, I’m not entirely sure that was acting, considering his condition.
It’s not that I have anything against Hoffman. As his captivating and charismatic turns in Capote and The Master show, he was an unparalleled screen presence. And it’s not that I’m against the slow-burning subtlety you often find in Le Carré adaptations either. The Constant Gardener and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy both balanced political commentary with emotional engagement – often centring as much on the tension of eerily quiet conversational set-pieces as on the occupational hazards of conspiracy and espionage. In this case, however, there is very little to attach you to any of the characters in such a way, to make you feel the tension because you care about any of them. And that is a huge missed opportunity having cast Hoffman.
At the same time though, the most interesting character isn’t Gunther at all – something the filmmakers don’t seem to entirely understand. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a man fleeing torture and genocide in his native Chechnya. He has a back full of scars that says more of substance about why people turn to extremism than any of the two-dimensional ideologues that hobble about the screen for the majority of the film. It speaks of a life of persecution and desperation, and of a man who is not inherently evil but has literally nothing left to lose in the face of such complete and abhorrent oppression.
This is the most meaningful statement the film makes, and I’ll commend it for that much, as we are clearly supposed to feel a degree of contempt for the competing strains of conservative thought personified by the rest of the cast. However, Dobrygin is barely given two minutes of dialogue in a film that seems to have a running time of two calendar years – leaving so much unsaid and unexplored, in favour of ramping up the screen-time of bigger names.
There is something in the contrast between the hunter and the hunted, though. What director Anton Corbijn does do well is to play Issa’s conflicted humanity in contrast with Gunther – who eventually emerges as the biggest hypocrite in all of Hamburg. All along he is presented as ‘Anti-Terror Lite’; the Coke without the sugar, ‘security’ without oppression, war without bloodshed. Rather than black bag suspects, it is suggested he simply hopes to reconcile his adversaries with his system of values, to gently maintain order. In the end, however, his actions and his ideology are little more than an enabling force for the true nature of the West: one where the preservation of an imperialist status-quo trumps liberty every time; and one that ultimately makes the world more dangerous than ever.
As ‘progressively’ as he is painted, Gunther is the archetypal liberal state-actor – dodging the bigger structural questions of just why people might want to attack Western targets (such as numerous invasions by the West and its plundering of resources; illegal abductions; torture and murder; or North America and Europe offering political and financial support to some of the Middle East’s most villainous despots). Because, instead of looking at this, Gunther focuses on individual experiences, he completely fails to challenge the systemic injustice that creates the problems he is employed to tackle. And those forces come back to hurt people time and again – while he re-sets, and assures himself next time will be different. It might be the first time we have witnessed this cycle, but for an experienced member of the security state, it would be naïve to think he hasn’t seen this happen before. That makes him, for all his supposed convictions, complicit in human rights abuse.
This is all interesting enough that A Most Wanted Man at least makes a decent antidote to Kathryn Bigelow’s infantile and depoliticised The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, which both treat the war on terror’s effect as fuel for adrenaline junkies, and bemoaning their careless heroism while neatly skirting round the cause for it in the first place. But the kicker is that it’s depressingly less engaging than either of those films – so comparatively few people will remember it! For now, it seems the devil has all the best tunes.
As interesting as certain points are to think on, post-coma, A Most Wanted Man does little to prevent the curse of ‘numb bum’ over the course of a turgid two hours. The points of nuance and intrigue are too few and far between, and in the meantime, nobody on screen fleshes out enough for us to be tricked, really tricked, into believing them as human beings… or worse, as human beings who are dangerously susceptible to believing their own bullshit. While I can imagine this film has since found its way onto the course outline for numerous Political Science modules – a fate worse than death – it cannot really be said to have given a springboard for a broader conversation on the war on terror. Beyond the fallout of Hoffman’s death, it will most likely cease to be A Most Wanted film for anybody but dusty academics.