A Most Wanted Man

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A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding as Günther Bachmann.

Director Anton Corbyn, released 12 September
In his last film role Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding as Günther Bachmann, the head of a small Intelligence unit in present-day Hamburg. Bachmann’s brief is to spy on the city’s Muslim population, his networks built on convincing potential informers within the community to betray their families and friends. “We become their friends, brothers, fathers,” he explains to his superiors in Berlin.

Bachmann is able to swap cheery banter with Hamburg’s immigrant shopkeepers in Turkish and Arabic but his trade is built on the paranoia, racism and Islamophobia generated and sustained by the “war on terror.”

Hoffman’s team are monitoring Doctor Faisal Abdullah — who seems the archetypal moderate Muslim, a respected scholar stressing the need for peaceful dialogue between Islam and the West.

But Bachmann is convinced that Abdullah is also diverting charitable funds to jihadist groups. “Every good man has a little bit of bad,” Bachmann argues and Abdullah’s “little bit of bad” wants revenge for what Western imperialism has visited on the Middle East.

When Chechen refugee Issa Karpov arrives in Hamburg, with access to a huge fortune in a private bank, Bachmann sees a way of entrapping Abdullah.

John le Carré, who wrote the book this film is based on, is widely regarded as the world’s finest writer of spy fiction. His breakthrough novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) exploded the James Bond myth of spying as all gadgets and glamour. As a former intelligence operative himself, he drew on his own experience to expose a cynical brutal world in which opposing sides in the Cold War were equally corrupt.

Le Carré’s acclaimed spy-master George Smiley endures nothing but betrayal — the ruthless “means” he employs in his long career making a nonsense of the “ends” he is fighting for. Recently le Carré has argued that “there is a big difference between fighting the cold war and fighting radical islam.” That “difference” is not obvious in A Most Wanted Man.

Actually Bachmann is very much in the tradition of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, non-ideological, world-weary spies that inhabit le Carré’s other work. Bachmann seems to be the consummate spy-master, manipulating events and people at will — convincing sons to betray their fathers and liberals to cooperate with state persecution of minorities. He even uses the faith of believers against themselves.

But Bachmann has forgotten — as Smiley forgot before him — that players can also be played and that betrayal is a two-way street. This is a powerful, intensely political thriller, which subtly builds to a brilliant climax.