LE CARRÉ DIEM: A Most Wanted Man

30 June, 2016 at 6:41 pm (batman, film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Commissioner Gordon ultimately takes over MI6 after discovering the Kingsman mole in his midst. Remember: everything is in continuity.

CURRENTLY: I first saw this film in the cinema, where the experience of watching it was weighed down with the knowledge of the death of its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman died of an overdose of heroin between the film’s premiere at Sundance in January of 2014 and it’s wide release in September of that year, and reports and remembrances in the interim painted a picture of a man who was intense in his work and seemingly unable to leave that intensity at work. So while watching his portrayal of a man bent under pressure to stop the next global terrorist act, it was difficult not to imagine him carrying that intensity around with him, and looking to chemical relief. It made it hard to watch, and made me feel complicit in his demise, because this was the kind of intense emotional work that I wanted him to labour under, to provide for me. I’m not sure I wholly understand the message that Haneke was going for in Funny Games, especially as I have no desire to ever watch it, but it has filtered through to me that the film is about villains’ agency to fulfill the audience’s desire to watch terrible things happen, that their motivation is not as characters but as avatars for our collective desire for bloodlust masquerade. We are supposed to feel guilty for what happens to the characters. Similarly, I felt a twinge of responsibility, however accurate, for providing a marketplace for Hoffman’s lack of catharsis.

the Viking paperback edition of A Most Wanted Man by John le CarréBecause I spent my initial screening of A Most Wanted Man watching Hoffman’s onscreen pain, and projecting his apparent real life pain onto that performance, there were some aspects of the film that I missed the first time ’round. In particular, I missed entirely that this film was post-9/11 storytelling and filmmaking. I certainly didn’t catch or remember the introductory text mentioning that the planners of the Sept. 11th attacks planned their assault from Frankfurt, and the multicultural port city continued to actively search for future terrorist activity that might originate with their Muslim populations. It isn’t given undue mention subsequently, but in his notes on still photos he took during the production, director Anton Corbijn makes an explicit reference to what is the background to everyone’s actions and motivations. While narrating images from scenes where the Muslim Chechen at the center of the story spends his time holed up in an abandoned apartment, tossing paper airplanes around the space, Corbijn says that Issa tossing the paper distractions at the plastic construction sheeting in the apartment is “Obviously… a reference to 9/11” (p.106).

I was astonished by this claim, and if it had been made by anyone other than the film’s director, I would have dismissed it as the worst kind of symbolic and interpretive overreach. However, when I noticed that the first British editions of both the hardcover and paperback print runs of A Most Wanted Man had also seized upon that image, I began to feel like I was the fool who hadn’t notice the glaringly obvious visual miming. However, when Corbijn later uses that same plastic sheeting as a metaphor that allows Issa “visually [to] go from a ‘terrorist’ to a ‘martyr'” (p. 109), I returned again to my comfortable stance that this imagery was more than a little abstruse, and that it’s injected meanings might be falling well short of the viewer.

The cast has a handful of North American stars, none who have risen to the ranks of matinée idol, and a clutch of German actors, including Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl. Hoss was unfamiliar to me, although Corbijn assures me in his photo book that she is highly desired on the German-language stage and screen, and she had apparently appeared in Homeland, though after I had stopped watching it. If the assessment of her reputation is accurate, I have little trouble believing it, as she has one of those magnetic screen presences, making silent human moments utterly watchable and full of an intense inner life. Her frustrated romantic tension with Hoffman’s character feels completely in keeping with the larger Le Carré ouevre, even those most of its existence in the film is primarily subtextual.

Brühl has only just appeared in the summer release of Captain America: Civil War, as of this writing, turning in an understated performance that is very much at odds with the kind of maniacal showboating that typifies movie villains and especially super-hero movie villains. His climactic scene is quite wonderful, although his apparent youth distracted me while mentally comparing him to his comic book antecedent. He has comparatively little to do here, except to — speaking of Marvel villains — fulfill the Tom Hiddleston role in Wallander: to be a slightly underutilized cog, primarily occupied by something computery, working for the larger law enforcement machine.

Daniel Brühl and Tom Hiddleston: Guys in a Chair

This is what happens when HBO GO cracks down on password-sharing:
everyone has to huddle around the same 12-inch monitor for warmth

On the North American side, we have Willem Dafoe doing his oft-forgotten excellent job as a character actor. He’s done a sufficient number of high-profile action films and villain roles that it’s easy to forget that he can bring quiet, conflict, and finesse to a part. He’s matched with Rachel McAdams — whose own damsel and love interest roles often make me forget how free and genuine she was in Slings & Arrows and who was excellently anti-glamourous in Spotlight — who plays a refugee lawyer advocating for the title character, trying to protect his rights while also trying to make up her own mind about his innocence and culpability.

All three of these actors, including Hoffman, play their parts as English-speaking with a German accent. To be fair, so do the native German speakers, but this practice of speaking English in the accent of the setting has begun to rankle on critic Mark Kermode, who called out the production on this issue upon release. In part, this was because he found the film to contain a very authentic air, and to then listen to people playing Germans not speak German to each other struck him as discordant or reminded him of the artifice. However, I feel that this is more a difficulty with the dissonance of knowing who Philip Seymour Hoffman is and expecting his voice to tip a certain way. When blogging about Jude Law’s Scots accent in Black Sea, Kermode said he thought criticism had more to do with when one “see[s] somebody using an accent that you don’t necessarily associate with them, and something sounds wrong about it”, and I rather think that may have been his problem with Hoffman as well. Although, it should be noted that Le Carré when on set with Hoffman, thought at first that his command of the tones didn’t match up with the way his German co-stars would speak English: “For the first few minutes of listening to him, I thought, ‘Crikey,'” he recalled when speaking of the actor after his death. “No German I knew spoke English like this.” But Le Carr&eacute seems to have eventually subsumed his technical criticism in an understanding that it was part of Hoffman’s all-encompassing performance.

I have mentioned that I didn’t previously latch on to the post-9/11 aspect of Hoffman’s performance, but there’s no question that it’s one of the many lobes that he’s activating, one of the many scourges his character flails himself with. Others include the underdog position of his department, the sacrifices he demands of his crew, his past failures, and the lives for which he is responsible. It is these last two that I found to be the crux of film. Much like in Smiley’s People, is the spectre of a blown network that most haunts Hoffman’s character of Bachmann. He’s lived with one before, lived while others died. And we see him interacting with a source, a human asset who wants to quit providing information, who feels trapped between duty and danger, between responsibility and betrayal. There’s a great tension there, as Bachmann refuses to lie to his source, refuses to provide him with cold comfort, but merely shows what seems to be a deep love for him, and for what he’s doing. A love of people, of trying to help people do what’s best for each other, is the motivation under all of Bachmann’s actions, and the reason, ultimately why Robin Wright’s CIA character is both motivated to and able to betray him. For her, assets are tools, not people, and neither, really, is Bachmann. Which is why his weighty, desperate humanity is so devastating in the lingering shots in the conclusion.

NEXT: We finally get to the theatrical release of the film that inspired this whole sorry exercise…

Related Links:
Corbijn’s photobook reveals that the handoff between Hoffman and his source takes place at the very real Café Batman, which I’m kind of shocked I didn’t notice when it was on screen. I love that it’s a real thing, and I love that the cast and crew actually went there during the production. Named at the Batman region of Turkey, of course.
The Eyeball Kid says the Tom Waits track used in the credits is an alternate version than the studio recording.
Speaking of, I was surprised by the tonal difference in the Waits inclusion. The anti-nationalist implications of lyrics and Waits’ general cynicism notwithstanding, I though it was an odd choice by the director, until I learned he’d collaborated with Waits on a book of portraits the year prior.

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