No George Smiley: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther Backmann, a German spymaster on the hunt for terrorists, contemplates his next move while wondering if he’s acting on principle or out of ruthless ambition in one of Hoffman’s last movies, Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carre’s novel, A Most Wanted Man.
In the novels of John le Carre, the spy game is a tawdry, debasing, corrupting, soul-curdling, heartbreaking, while you still have a heart---over time it shrivels the heart inside you when it’s not taking it right out of you---conscience-deadening business. No one who gets into and no one whose life is touched by it survives without their principles and sense of self-worth shredded. Except for George Smiley, of course.
Smiley pays a price. There’s his purgatorial marriage to Lady Ann, for a start. It’s never clear if it’s a punishment or a penance he’s assigned himself. Whichever, he seems to accept that their mutual unhappiness is his fault and it’s somehow connected to his work as a spy. But he survives, that is, he continues to do his job while holding on to some of his principles and not totally compromising others. He’s able to do this because he’s the most competent agent in British Intelligence and he’s able to be that because he’s the most modest person in the service, at least the most lacking in vanity and careerist ambitions. What ambition he does have is inextricable from his commitment to doing his job well and if that means seeking and obtaining promotion, that’s fine. Moving up (or over or across or back, as necessary. A career as a spymaster is a chess game.) isn’t self-aggrandizement as it is for the likes of a Percy Alleline. It’s taking steps towards finishing the job, being finished with it, the ultimate goal being to make spying unnecessary by defeating his Soviet counterparts and helping to bring the Cold War to an end.
If there are others like George Smiley in le Carre’s universe, one of them is not Gunther Bachmann, the German spy heading a secret and only quasi-official anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg who is a main character in le Carre’s 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man and the main character in Anton Corbijn’s film adaptation now in theaters and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final movies as Bachmann.
Bachmann might like to be, like Smiley, that is, if he knew who Smiley was and what he’d accomplished and how he’d accomplished it. But if he does, he’s temperamentally disqualified. For one thing, he has little of the necessary modesty. He’s vain of his skills, his intelligence, and his achievements. And he lacks the patience, for another. That’s partly due to the nature of his current assignment which is to identify and thwart imminent terrorist attacks, preferably by breaking up plots before the plotters even know what they’re plotting themselves. But it’s also due to his still being in mid-career. We know from hints dropped in the novels and TV and film adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People that at a similar point in his life Smiley hadn’t yet learned to take a longer, more objective view. The significant difference between Bachmann and Smiley, however, is that Bachmann is personally ambitious. Not to move up. To move out.
Bachmann is in Hamburg doing what he’s doing because something went terribly wrong at his last station in Beirut. We’re not told exactly what, except that it involved meddling by the CIA, against whom Bachmann now holds a grudge and whom he already despised as bloodthirsty and incompetent. But he also blames himself for having let himself be outfoxed by those bloodthirsty incompetents at the cost of the lives of several of his assets and operatives.
Bachmann is looking to restore his reputation in the hope of winning a new assignment out in the field where the real action is but also where he’ll be out of the reach of interfering superiors, politicians, and diplomats and freer to operate as he knows he knows best how to do. But he also wants to be where the people he’s spying on, deceiving, manipulating, betraying, and sacrificing to the cause aren’t his fellow Germans and innocents.
The bitter irony is that to get to that place he has to spy on, deceive, manipulate, betray, and sacrifice fellow Germans and innocents.
This doesn’t make him feel guilty, at least not that guilty. It makes him more determined to do it in order to get what he wants sooner.
This time out, there are three innocents he’s about to make use of, two German citizens and one who wishes to become a citizen.
That third innocent may not be that innocent: Issa Karpov (Grigory Dobrygin), the illegitimate son of a Soviet general and the fifteen year old Chechen girl he raped but then professed to have fallen in love with. She died shortly after Issa was born, but the general took care of their son, or at any rate paid for him to be taken care of, and then made him his heir. A pious Muslim, having been raised in his mother’s religion, who makes a show of his piety, Issa has sneaked into Germany after his release from the last of the several prisons where he spent a good part of the years since 9/11 when he was not spending them with various jihadist groups in the Middle East. He’s come to lay claim to his inheritance which his father secretly deposited in a Hamburg bank. He insists he doesn’t want the money, which for good reason he considers dirty, for his own use. The question is, then, what does he want it for? To give to charities that will help the Chechen people his father waged war upon or to funnel it to militant Islamists here in Germany or in the Middle East?
Bachmann doesn’t much care where the money might be going. If it’s going to be used to fund terrorists, he’ll put a stop to it, of course. But it’s better for his purposes if Issa plans to give it away, because Bachmann knows just where it should end up, in the accounts of his real target, a philanthropist who almost certainly skims from the many charitable organizations he advises and directs to send to terrorist groups around the world. Almost certainly.
Bachmann plans to use Issa and his money to learn for absolutely certain. That is, he plans to use Issa as bait for a trap.
The other two innocents Bachmann makes his pawns are not as innocent as they should be, either, or at any rate their consciences aren’t as clear as they’d like, which makes them both vulnerable to Bachmann’s manipulations: Issa’s idealistic lawyer, Annabelle Richter (Rachel McAdams), an attorney for an organization called Sanctuary North dedicated to helping immigrants obtain residency, citizenship, and, if they need it, political asylum, and a lovelorn banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) who finds himself caught up in Issa’s story because his bank is the front for a illegal shadow bank set up near the end of the Cold War by Brue’s father to launder money stolen by corrupt Soviet politicians and high-ranking military officers and stash it away for them for the day when they need to get out of Russia while the getting is good. One of those secret depositors was Issa’s father, and Tommy Brue’s bank is the repository for a fortune that Brue feels duty-bound to hand over to Issa, provided Issa decides that he wants it and the police don’t nab Issa beforehand.
Going in to the theater, I was wondering how Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell had gone about trying to turn a rather talky novel into a satisfying work of visual storytelling. Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man is built upon extensive conversations and internal monologs in which characters tell each other what has happened and what is going to happen and the reasons for both. Most of the exciting and dramatic action takes place within quotation marks, that is, it takes place in a reported past, and that reporting is often second and third-hand. That’s where the more interesting and dynamic characters, Issa’s and Brue’s fathers, live too, in the past. (In the novel’s present, both are several years dead.) This works fine on the page. A story told within a story being told works on readers’ imaginations just as if it comprised a novel all on its own. But on screen characters talking about the past are just characters talking about the past. Makes for dull viewing. So I expected Corbijn and Bovell would resort to extensive flashbacks.
That isn’t what they did.
The focus is all on the present with the working out of Bachmann’s personal dilemma becoming the driving force behind the narrative. Tension and suspense build out of the questions of how ruthless he’ll be in pursuing his goals and whether or not he’ll do the right thing in the end, because he really is one of the good guys and doing his job right and doing the right thing are the same for him as they are for George Smiley. His problem is, like I said, he’s not a George Smiley.
One of his problems.
Another problem is that he may not have time to do what he needs to do, right or not. He’s competing with the state police, other spy agencies, and, once again, the CIA for Issa and the right to claim his money. The cops just want to make headlines. The other spies don’t let Bachmann in on their agendas. All he knows is that politics and politicians are involved and that always means trouble for him. But the CIA, in the ingratiating and seemingly reasonable and cooperative person of a senior analyst played by Robin Wright in an unconvincing short black wig with a sweep of scythe-sharp bangs slashing across her forehead, wants to do what the CIA did a lot in the Bush years. So we’re put into the position of rooting for Bachmann even as we suspect we won’t like what he does.
This approach doesn’t require much of a change from the Bachmann of the novel to the Bachmann on the screen. It does require significant changes in the characters of Annabelle Richter and Tommy Brue, changes that diminish them as admirable human beings but make them more dramatically useful and, not so oddly, more sympathetic by making them more vulnerable to Bachmann’s scheming and manipulations.
As Annabelle, McAdams has the difficult task of acting out from behind the tangled tresses of her long golden blonde hair. The hair is perfectly in keeping with her character or, rather, it’s a perfect expression of her character, a spoiled rich girl rebelling against her establishmentarian family by playing at being a radical lawyer trying not to look like a spoiled rich girl rebelling against her family by playing at being a radical lawyer. It would probably have been a more effective disguise if she just dressed like a lawyer instead of a grad student who’s planning the next several days holed up in the library in a determined effort to complete a draft of her dissertation, a style choice that sends confusing messages to Issa and Tommy Brue.
In the novel, Annabelle isn’t rebelling against her family, she exemplifying a family trait of taking things a few steps farther than other people in the same situation are content to. It’s not enough for her brother the psychiatrist to be a Freudian, he has to be the Freudian’s Freudian. As a liberal lawyer, it’s not enough for Annabelle to champion underdogs, she has to take on the most wretched and hopeless clients. She’s a much tougher nut than her movie counterpart. Her exploitable vulnerability is in her shaken self-confidence. She recently failed to save a client from deportation. And now she’s constantly undermining herself with the fear she’ll fail Issa in the same way.
But that version of Annabelle only makes sense in the context of her family who are characters in the book but for whom there is no room in a two-hour movie.
McAdams’ Annabelle is immature, naive, more emotional than coolly intellectual in a lawyerly way. Her commitment to her work seems more an adopted attitude than to have a real passion as its source. And she’s way out of her depth. She knows it too and, while her self-doubting counterpart in the novel feels desperately in need of help, this Annabelle is desperate to be saved from a predicament of her own making. Which makes her an easy mark for Bachmann who recognizes that what she wants is to have the whole problem taken out of her hands.
The Tommy Brue of the novel is the jovial, bluff, outgoing son of an expatriate Scot whose heart is still in the highlands. He’s competent, canny, and knows his business, and, more important, knows his customers’ businesses. He’s somebody you’d gladly trust with your Euros. But there’s something a little off. His wife despises him. He’s hopeless with his difficult and neurotic daughter, and he’s so immediately and completely smitten with Annabelle, who is less than half his age, that despite his having been married twice and having a grown daughter, he appears to have not even a teenager’s clue as to how to relate to a woman. At first glance, he comes across as charmingly young for his age, in body and at heart, but it turns out not be as much the attractive youthfulness of a man enjoying an extended prime but the pathetic boyishness of someone who’s never really grown up. And no wonder. All his life, Tommy Brue (and note how he goes by a little boy’s nickname) has been defined in other people’s eyes and in his own as another, better man’s son.
Even now, with his father seven years dead and himself running the bank for as long, he still sees himself as answering to the man he refers to as Edward Amadeus and not father, papa, or dad. When thinking his way through a problem, he’s in the habit of addressing Edward Amadeus, practically holding dialogs between himself and the old man’s ghost, essentially asking for the ghost’s advice and permission to do whatever it is Tommy thinks needs to be done.
Again, as with the Annabelle of the novel, we have a character who only makes sense in the context of his family. But Tommy’s daughter is never seen or heard from and barely mentioned. His contemptuous way appears in one brief scene only to express her contempt. And Edward Amadeus is only a stick to beat the plot along, a piece of exposition produced when required to explain the action not an active participant in the unfolding of his son’s personal drama popping up through the stage floor to intone “Remember!”
And while you’d expect that Tommy, the novel’s Tommy, to be played by someone big, hearty, and full of good cheer, he appears on screen in the small, shrunken-looking, and sad-eyed form of Willem Dafoe who plays him as a weak, self-doubting, fraud or at least a fraud in his own eyes. We hardly need the scene with the contemptuous wife. This Tommy Brue is clearly a man used to living with the knowledge that he’s contemptuous and who believes he deserves it.
The novel’s Tommy at sixty is still as devoted to his father and in awe of him as he was at twelve and he’s determined to do right by the old man’s memory, which means seeing things through as he thinks Edward Amadeus would have wanted even though that means making himself complicit in his father’s crimes and by extension Issa’s father’s far worse crimes. It’s not so much a case of the sins of the father being visited upon the son as the son volunteering to complete the transgression.
If there’s a dead father haunting the movie Tommy, it’s not one who commands respect and obedience based on love and respect, but one who terrifies based on a lifetime of bullying and abuse. And that’s the ghost Bachmann channels as he sizes Brue up as a beaten man who expects, even needs to be bullied.
It’s a rare treat, but also a bit disconcerting, to see Dafoe playing a character so completely without menace and, apparently, meanness, also without any inner reserves of strength, a weak man whose facade of competence and superiority is easily cracked. revealing a moral coward who it’s no trouble to embarrass, rattle, and cow. It was probably even more fun for me because I’d just rewatched The Grand Budapest Hotel in which his character is the embodiment of menace and meanness. But, again, still disconcerting. A part of me kept asking What evil’s at work here that this can be to Willem Dafoe?
Issa is pretty much what he is in the book, as much a puzzle and a challenge for audiences as he is for readers and for Gunther. It’s intrinsic to his character that he deflects sympathy. Simultaneously resistant to all efforts to help him and abjectly compliant and too stubbornly withdrawn to explain himself either way, he’s inscrutable, hard to figure, harder to like, self-righteous, full of his own sense of superior virtue, a sullen version of Dostoevsky’s Idiot Prince Myshkin, reflexively holding himself up as a moral example that he makes so unattractive no one wants to live it up to it even if they could.
Issa is taciturn, wary, unforthcoming. He’s not monosyllabic, but he uses as few sentences as possible and speaks haltingly as if not just thinking over each word but as translating them through his first two languages, Russian and Turkish, before delivering them in German. Dobrygin, who captures Issa’s tensed, spidery figure as described by le Carre in the novel, does most of his acting through his mournful, questioning, accusatory eyes. But when, to disguise himself, Issa’s forced to shave his beard, to his humiliation and shame, revealing Dobrygin’s own very boyish face, the mournfulness to outright sadness and pain, the questioning becomes a beseeching: “Please don’t hurt me anymore. I’m trying so hard to be good.” His whole aspect is that of a hurt little boy trying to be brave while abjectly expecting a whipping.
Which is natural considering the scars on his back from his stints in the prisons where he was torture. Issa is someone who had to withdraw so far into himself as his only defense against torture that he can’t climb out again. The little boy lostness of his expression and demeanor is what remains of the man who is lost to himself. The lost little boy would be easier to pity, however, if he wasn’t such a moral scold and quite possibly a once and future terrorist.
It may be that in using Issa Bachmann is also saving him from himself.
Which brings me to Hoffman as Bachmann.
I suppose it would have been fitting if this was one of Hoffman’s greatest performances and he’d gone out at the very top of his game. But that’s a sentimental notion and unnecessary to his legacy. In A Most Wanted Man he does what he did best throughout his career, create an entirely new person distinct from every other character he played and to do it without showiness or show-offiness and, seemingly, without effort. As he plays him, Bachmann is irritable, impatient, prone to bullying not just assets like Tommy Brue and Annabelle Richter but his superiors and his rivals in other agencies, people he should be placating if he wants to get his career back on track. He has his tender side and shows he had and probably still has a heroic one. But he’s relentless and ruthless and for the most part deliberately difficult to like and even more difficult to figure, probably because he doesn’t seem to much like himself or have himself at all figured out. Hoffman’s Bachmann is a protagonist hard to root we root for anyway because he is so confoundedly human.
Corbijn makes Hamburg a dark and guilty place. It’s as gritty and full of shadows and fog as the London of Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but an even more oppressive, comfortless, and paranoia-inducing city and a more congenial home to spies and other villains because it’s lacking George Smiley.
What it has is a Gunther Bachmann and he and his people are lost in the gloom.
Retrieved from the dark and guilty place known as the archives: From January 2012, my review of Aflredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley.
A Most Wanted Man directed by Anton Corbijn, screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carre. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, and Grigory Dobrygin. Rated R. Now in theaters.