“A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt aptly noted. Equally dangerous, I might add, is the romantic functionary who believes s/he can single-handedly outmaneuver the machinery that makes an unjust system run ever so smoothly.
In “A Most Wanted Man,” the unjust system is all too familiar– extraordinary rendition and entrapment, the whole bureaucratic apparatus of anti-terrorism covert operations and the societal fear that gives moral cover to violating the human rights of those suspected of being terrorists. Günther Bachmann, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his most haunting performances, is our unlikely hero of sorts. Bachmann is a seasoned spy in the German intelligence service. Heavyset, morose and disheveled, he is no James Bond. Bachmann’s true merit as a spymaster rests on his tactics. Unlike the brash and counterproductive methods of American operatives, Bachmann attempts to run a more humane and efficient operation. He bids his time when monitoring a potential terrorist or ideological sympathizer and, through coercion and manipulation, even enlists a suspect’s relatives in his surveillance work, the better to lure in the true masterminds with the financial wherewithal to fund terrorist cells.
Bachmann is stationed in Hamburg, Germany where 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and his co-conspirators lived a decade before that fateful day. The air is rife with anxiety and the overzealous desire to track, and foil, even the slightest threat to Americans or their European allies pervades the atmosphere. We have entered the nebulous world of George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Bachmann has been sent to Hamburg as a form of punishment for exposing agents working under him in a previous case. A wan world-weary despondency hangs over Bachmann as he scrambles to enact a moral code in a system that has so far outpaced his capacity to outwit the duplicitous machinations of higher-ups in the intelligence bureaucracy.
No doubt Bachmann is a man waiting to get played. The opportunity to throw into high relief the conflict between Bachmann, the cog, and his superiors, the holders of the levers on the machine, arises when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) turns up in Hamburg seeking political asylum after being tortured at the hands of his Russian captors. Karpov also arrives with a letter of introduction that grants him access to millions of Euros his Russian Mafiosi father deposited in the vault of a Hamburg bank. Sure enough his appearance in Hamburg raises red flags for intelligence agents. The Americans and Germans take a keen interest in Karpov. Half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim, Karpov is a man of split loyalties. Or so American and German spies perceive him to be. Indeed, he is an emotionally unstable man. He alternately evinces a crazed intensity, an affecting sensitivity and childlike innocence, all of which make it easier for the viewer to empathize with the brutalization and torture he has had to endure while also lending credibility to the fears of his incognito pursuers.
These contradictory sentiments could have assumed a greater saliency and poignancy when expressed through the actions of the idealistic naïf Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights activist turned mole, who becomes Karpov’s trusted guide. Richter is Bachmann’s counterpart to the extent that they both have moral codes that will become undone as the system exerts its ruthless power. But while Bachmann played by Hoffman dominates the screen with his vital presence, McAdams doesn’t truly rise to the occasion. One moment she is a seemingly trusted friend to the immigrant family that offers refuge to Karpov. Next she is collaborating with Bachmann to use the traumatized Karpov as bait for a sting operation targeting a prominent Muslim scholar and philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) with possible ties to terrorists. For someone with liberal credentials in the world of human rights, Richter strains plausibility with her alacrity to collude with Bachmann. Even when Bachmann illegally holds her in a clandestine prison cell, it doesn’t faze her. Ideally, Richter’s moral code would have been informed by her activism, but whatever political work she’s done is never fully explored, much less acknowledged. She is a cipher in the film aside from the function she plays to advance the plot.
Director Anton Corbijn’s isn’t interested in character. He wants to offer the viewer a vision of the new normal we inhabit in the post-9/11 world. Based on John Le Carre’s book of the same title, “A Most Wanted Man” depicts a brutally austere and efficient system that will ultimately go unchallenged despite the best efforts of the so-called good guys on the inside, romantic fuckups like Bachmann who seek to steer the system’s power brokers toward rational thinking and pragmatic decision-making. One way of understanding the film is as an ineradicably unjust system marshaling all its power to discipline and make an example of an internal dissident. Once Bachmann’s liberal faith in deliberation and persuasion runs up against the blatant disregard for these shibboleths and outright betrayal displaces the guessing game with which the Americans and Germans have entertained him, he has only one option at his disposal: go rogue, down the righteous and courageous path of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Except that the film withholds this possibility of social redemption through personal ethics and instead provides in its place a dark, hopeless fatalism.
The images Corbijn has carefully selected bring us into a violent world sparing in its exploration of human suffering and death; all the subjective violence is elided, and what remains is objective devastation, the contrasting allure of open offices made of Plexiglas and whirring fans in holding cells. Torture, for the most part, is left out of sight. And rightly so. What is in plain view, however, are the calculated maneuvers to keep the system running as smoothly as possible into perpetuity. And that invisible exercise of power is what needs exposure more than anything else to raise the question not of individual acts of resistance à la Manning or Snowden but of collective politics and struggle for systemic change.