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Between Us and Nobody

James Williamson


Günter Bachman, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role, a slightly disheveled, world-weary loyalist trying to hang onto whatever meaning he can salvage in a dubious post-9/11 reality, is a sort of whore with a heart of gold. A professional spy by trade, he enters into whatever ententes are necessary to do the job, and perhaps to keep his humanity afloat in a world that has gone wrong around him. He is nobody's henchman or mercenary; cerebral, melancholy, and haunted by some unspecified failure from his earlier days as an operative in Beirut, he carries a burden that remains unexpressed, but painfully felt.


Chain-smoking and hard-drinking, he is now the chief asset in a small anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg. (He was sent as an expiation to take charge of the unit that exists mainly for illicit purposes, whenever "Intelligence needs a job to be done that German law won't let it do.") Except for his two assistants, played by Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl, Günter is a lone wolf, studied in the old ways of psychological inquiry and observation. It's a subtle game that his more brutish police-state GSG 9 peers are not willing to indulge and our sympathies are immediately with him. It takes only a brief scene or two for the viewer to embrace this distinguished American actor's intrusion onto the screen with a German accent and rumpled charisma; but once this happens, the two-hour film unfolds at a compelling pace.


Throughout the story, Günter remains both antihero and fifth business, manifesting a palpable talent for manipulating others. In the course of frequenting dingy dives and gritty backstreets (he actually prefers the working class joints to the more upscale settings in the story) one gets the feeling that he feels he belongs in those shadowy peripheries, arranged through some pact with an anonymous underworld network. His feet are solidly on the ground there, even if many of his alliances are suspect. And we assume they are, though we believe him when he declares that his intention is to help "make the world a safer place"—even if he does not fully believe it himself.

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It only takes a brief scene or two for the viewer to embrace this distinguished American actor's intrusion onto the screen with a German accent and rumpled charisma. 




Hoffman's achievement, and it is a great one, is matched by (author of the novel on which the movie is based) John le Carré's typically mature and insightful depiction of complex characters fighting the doubts they harbor privately. As a young man, le Carré was for a short time a British MI6 agent in Bonn, which is why, perhaps, there is no black-and-white heroism to be found in any of his novels or, for that matter, in the film. It is an unheroic Günter who, with razor-sharp perspicacity, pulls the strings of the other characters, while always in sync with a Rubik's Cube-like logic clicking behind the bigger picture. He knows that given the right opportunity, a person might redefine their fate, and in his off-kilter way, he remains a hard pressed optimist.





For le Carré, Günter is man cut from civilized cloth. He wrote about him: "Bachmann’s self-devised mission is to put the score straight: not by way of snatch teams, waterboards and extrajudicial killings, but by the artful penetration of spies, by espousal, by using the enemy’s own weight to bring him down, and the consequent disarming of jihadism from within."


Hamburg is where it was originally claimed in the mainstream press that Mohammed Atta (a CIA-controlled asset, according to former real-life agency operative Susan Lindauer) and his co-conspirators lived and planned the tragic attack on 9/11. At the movie's release, this assertion still hung over the plot's development like a pall; and into this world of blue and gray hues staggered another lone wolf and antihero (one who was to become the star of Günter's little theater play), Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim who, like Günter, has a shady past, but presents more like a homeless pilgrim who has slept rough along the way while making his hadj. (He is a character loosely based on the real-life torture victim Murat Kurnaz, a Turk who stated that he was tortured at both Kandahar and Guantanamo.) Issa, which in Chechen means "Jesus," le Carré has stated "is for me an archetype of the wretched of the earth if you like."


Actually, Issa has come to the port city where there is a significant Muslim community, after having been tortured and imprisoned in Russia. And after having stowed away on a freighter, he has landed to reclaim an inheritance of several million euros left him by his deceased criminal father. 


Or is he a terrorist planning to make a connection with an underground jihadist cell? Thus, Günter needs to find out within 72 hours or else Issa will be apprehended by the German GSG 9 (who were modelled after the Israeli Sayeret Matkal), who are working closely with the CIA. Their modus operandi is a reactive one, not given to pause, and lacks subtlety. They seem a much more perfidious threat than Günter and his crew, and they are. In the words of Alex Leamus (an earlier incarnation created by le Carré, and played by Richard Burton in the 1965 film, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: spies are "a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors...sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten up their rotten lives."


This was sharply revealed in Tomas Alfredson's recent film of le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which featured a similarly captivating performance by Gary Oldman, set in an austere and bleak netherworld of cold war stealth and secrecy. Toward the end of Tinker Tailor, however, the audience was left with much more ambiguity than is offered by A Most Wanted Man. Fortunately, director Anton Corbijn has regained his sea legs, after a mediocre performance with The American, starring George Clooney, and proves equal to the finely crafted screenplay by Andrew Bovell. It is another film Clooney starred in, Michael Clayton, that has more in common with A Most Wanted Man, in terms of not only its pace and style, but also its mood, intensity and moral probing.


With the help of his cast and crew, Corbijn manages to evince an exquisite low-key character-study that is also a gripping thriller. His cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme, is also at his best, catching superbly the shadowy margins of the city with unconventional framing (the film was shot in both Berlin and Hamburg), as well as its post modern  flashiness. The cast was scrupulously chosen, adding another dimension to the success of the film; it remains understated and taut and, therefore, as a result, potent and intriguing throughout. 


As a foil to Günter's calculated realism, a young and idealistic human rights lawyer who works for an organization called Sanctuary North, by the name of Annabel Richter (played by Rachel McAdams), enters the story—or as Günter describes her: "a social worker for terrorists." She herself will have to deal with her own emotions and inner-contradictions when she reluctantly concedes to a plan that is perhaps not so idealistic. Günther reminds her: "Your choice is between us and nobody." Fairly predictably, however, in the course of legally representing the mysterious Issa in seeking asylum, she falls in love with the good-looking pilgrim and goes on to conceal his whereabouts.


It is much to his credit that, in addition to delving into his characters' complexities, one of the most moving aspects of le Carré's novels is his unwillingness to surrender to cynical notions regarding the believability of love in an apparently loveless world. This is only one of the qualities that raise le Carré's work above other writers in his genre.


Fully ambiguous characters continue to enter the story, like Tommy Brue, the contemptibly timid owner of a failing British bank in Hamburg, another all-too-human character. Played astutely by Willem Dafoe, he embodies a blander villain who is perhaps more capable of inflicting harm on humanity with his briefcase and laptop than could a political terrorist or freedom fighter with a bomb. Dafoe conveys the feeling that the part he plays is a man who has made safe, even cowardly, decisions throughout his life, and has therefore become predictably weak when choosing under pressure. He represents the nowadays all-too-common investment banker-type who acts solely out of self-preservation and opportunism, although he can still perceive the flickering light of his lost humanity in the distance.


A stock-character in keeping with the central casting CIA-trope is agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), whose sangfroid is balanced only by her unapologetic Americanness. She seems more sure of her role and mission than does Günter and, while she is acutely capable of trading inside quips, she is clearly less tormented than he is, if at all, regarding her function in the intelligence game. Her certainties are true-blue, though perhaps nothing is what it seems.


Finally, there is Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi of Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry), a respected and "moderate" Muslim academic and philanthropist whose finances are not exactly in order. Portions of his wealth always seem to go missing (or are they intentionally diverted to a jihadist network?). He seems a sympathetic character, measuring by his respected and moderate standing in the community. But Martha is perhaps dead-on when she says to Günter that "every good man has a little bit of bad, doesn't he?" Günter has caught on early to the possibilty of a potential connection between Issa and Abdullah.


"It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda," he says, "...a barracuda to catch a shark."


The mood (including the pace) of the film has been set by Günter and it infects everyone who comes his way. The weight of so many shades of gray upon each character's personal capacity to choose is undoubtedly a ponderous one. The motives and intentions that interweave and unfurl before Günter form a noose around Issa that needs to be reeled in—and quickly—with time running out before Günter's GSG 9 nemesis, Dieter Mohr (Rainer Boch), takes over and apprehends the fugitive.

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David Cornwell, more familiarly known as John le Carré.

Photograph in the public domain



In this era of NSA surveillance and breakdown of civil liberties which have been the result of highly empowered (now globalized) security states and a protracted "war on terror," the film identifies with those of us who are watched by the watchers, and hints at what it might be like to be singled out for one's association with the "wrong" group, or one's ethnicity or religious identity. 


Undoubtedly, this is le Carré's personal commentary on the heavy-handedness (and consequent lack of finesse) employed by those ever-encroaching surveillance states that preside over the military and police authorities currently squeezing us in their grip at the slightest hint of dissent, and which, on every continent, resemble one another more and more.


Perhaps the most startling frisson occurs at the end of the film (yes, it's a surprise-ending that for most viewers will be unexpected) when Günter, a man of thoughtful reflection and respectful courtesy, is relegated to playing the role of mere symbol of an obsolete method and time.




Article Copyright 2014-2019 by James Barron Williamson   All rights reserved



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