Friday, September 26, 2014
Slap a few horns and halos on characters and A Most Wanted Man resembles less a political thriller than a morality play, albeit one with angels and devils arguing the finer nuances of post-9/11 geopolitics while perched upon the shoulders of men. Adapted from the John Le Carre novel by Anton Corbijn, the film populates the purgatorial port city of Hamburg with those wounded by the war on terror: refugees, failed spies, idealists gone to seed. Warring tribes of spooks keep watch over two Muslims who occupy vastly different spheres of the social order. Abdullah is a prominent community leader who preaches tolerance while bankrolling violence; Issa is a Chechen washed ashore after fleeing Russian oppression, and his motives remain inscrutable beneath his shell-shocked demeanor. Anti-terrorism agent Gunter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tries to tempt both men towards redemption, while the U.S. attaché prefers the far simpler route of damnation. It seems you can believe in salvation all you want, but there’s no guarantee a higher power will match that faith. God is an American, and the Old Testament is clearly her foreign policy manual of choice.
But while the U.S. agent behaves as expected, Bachmann’s motives remain inscrutable for much of the film, hidden behind his wan smile as he parrots the American line about making the world a safer place. Even if he believes that cliché, his methods clearly have been deemed eccentric and naïve by his peers. Allusions to past mistakes appear again and again—the word “Beirut” is repeated several times like a penitent’s prayer—and suggest Bachmann may be more interested in saving his own soul rather than redeeming his targets. How else to explain his occasionally baffling need to offer these men the choice of amnesty over the threat of deportation? Elaborate state surveillance apparatuses typically do not spring up out of a government’s kindliness. Yet if Abdullah and Issa can be given better lives—or more accurately, coerced into accepting them—then perhaps the entire sick system can be redeemed. All of the deception and damage done in the name of peace and safety can be, if not forgiven, at least excused as ignoble means securing a noble end. If not, then Bachmann must confront the fact that he is but one more tendril of a creeping police state. The crushing final scenes of the film suggest that any such redemption is beyond reach for the man. Prisons, of course, are not built to set men free.