When we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, we lost a man who knew how to be human in front of a camera. A man who knew exactly how to give a complete and detailed account of the human condition. His characters never dared to fall into the trap of clichés, never felt diminished by a bad script or a mediocre finished product. Hoffman always rose to the occasion and treated each film as if it was his last shot at redemption. This is perhaps most evident in his penultimate screen appearance in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, a film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel about espionage in the 21st century. The film is one of the most pessimistic works to come out in recent years and captures brilliantly what I would call the hopelessness of espionage, a running theme in le Carré’s body of work. The character played by Seymour Hoffman, Günther Bachmann, a spy for the German government, is a tragic reminder of what men become when they’re at sea for too long.
The story is simple and like with most le Carré stories it serves the plot only to emphasize the wrong-doings of the system this story is set in. For le Carré there is no such thing as countries. There’s only systems, and more often than not, they’re broken down, corrupt. And the people living in these systems aren’t as much as living as they’re functioning within the boundaries set by these systems. For le Carré, our gravest tendency is we like to get complacent. Complacency, in turn, allows these systems to thrive and grow in power. A Most Wanted Man works under that assumption. It examines the psyche of a man who is convinced he is doing something good, something right. However, he is doing these things for the benefit of a system.
The story begins with a political refugee from Chechenia named Issa Karpov illegally entering the city of Hamburg, Germany, Europe’s biggest harbor and the epicenter of terrorist cells following 9/11. Günther Bachmann’s job following the attacks is to identify and recruit as informants individuals with potential ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus, the game of cat and mouse begins, as Bachmann is set on using Karpov to connect him to Chechen terrorists in order to prevent another 9/11 (the plans for those attacks were conceived in Hamburg without any sort of discovery or interference on the part of intelligence services). As a result, the whole film is fueled by this sense of paranoia, this endless need to uncover a conspiracy, to unmask the boogey-man and come out triumphantly holding the enemy’s severed head.
The cold, steely look given by the director, Corbijn (who started out as a photographer), and cinematographer Delhomme helps capture not only Hamburg’s modern architecture but also the tone of Bachmann’s calculated profession. It is a job that entails a cold and indifferent attitude, requiring of you to consider people as nothing but leverage, pawns to be moved around a chess board. Bachmann’s whole shtick is to use people as bait for more dangerous fish. The people he uses often do not realize the situation they’re truly in as Bachmann consoles them, hugs them, even kisses them. He gives them a reason to believe in what they do, he convinces them of things that simply do not exist. Promises them such foolish things as freedom, love, independence. Because the job demands it, because the job is everything. Is it not?
Bachmann is a master manipulator, however this ‘skill’ comes at a price, namely he walks through life without savoring it. The metallic look of the film suggests just that: here we have a man who in principle works for our safety, but this means he cannot look at something and not consider it a possible danger to society. To Bachmann, bars are places where people conspire, a man hugging a woman certainly hints at an exchange of precious information, a man walking his dog down the street is nothing but an actor playing his part, every phone call is dialed with the intent of blowing up a bomb somewhere. This one-dimensional, grim outlook on life makes of Seymour Hoffman’s character a fascinating protagonist as we ultimately don’t know what he truly believes in. In a scene where Bachmann presents his mission to his superiors and members of German security and American diplomats, the American (played by Robin Wright) asks him: “What’s the objective?”, to which Bachmann answers “To make the world a safer place.” He follows this up by giving it a shrug, shaking his head as if to say, Yeah, I know. How crazy is that?
Indeed, the film works as an adaptation because at the end of the day it captures the soul and attitude of le Carré’s writing. The writing of a man disillusioned with the world he’s living in, with the job he once carried out as a young man with ambitions to do something great, something truly right. After all, le Carré’s best adaptations were in fact films that knew how to capture the author’s sense of weariness: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton as boozy secret agent Alec Leamas who can’t make any sense of what’s right and wrong in the early stages of the Cold War; The Constant Gardener (2005) with the story of a small-time British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) coming to terms with his country’s role in Africa’s devastation; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) with its universe of endless back-stabbings between people who should be working for the same cause. What makes these film adaptations work is precisely the deep understanding of le Carré’s tired, disillusioned voice.
A Most Wanted Man wrestles back and forth between Bachmann’s professional devotion, his sense of duty, and his complete misunderstanding of basic human emotions. His spy craft turns everything into an image or a soundbite to be studied, played around, manipulated. Everything can be recorded, cut, released. As the movie progresses and one of the central characters, a refugee lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help out Issa Karpov providing him with food and shelter, Bachmann sees this not as an act of humanity but as a way-in for him to intervene and use the lawyer to his advantage. The chase that compels him, that makes him get up in the middle of the night and roam the streets of Hamburg looking for informants is the only thing that prevents him from becoming insane. Bachmann is, in other words, a man destined to live out the rest of his days in a hamster wheel. This constant motion is the only thing keeping him alive.
Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate A Most Wanted Man. It is by no means an easy watch as it asks the viewer to leave any pre-conceived notions out by the door. Just like the characters in it, the movie operates under guidelines established by the system in charge. No explanations are given. Characters, even those like Bachmann who think they have a say in the matter, must know when to walk away when the situation demands it. For Bachmann, walking away equals defeat. Walking away is the betrayal of his own being. But it is also the name of the game. All of le Carré’s characters must know when to walk away if they want to survive. The question is, survive and do what? Survive for what? For a system? For a world where giving a man food and shelter is seen as an act of conspiracy?
Philip Seymour Hoffman may have walked away from this world, but his ability to be deeply human whenever the director said Action! will, unlike Bachmann’s profession, echo in eternity.