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Unable to weave its overwhelming number of characters and conflicts together into a solidly crafted dramatic tapestry, director Gavin Hood's otherwise ambitious 2007 effort Rendition was one of several pictures to address the moral and ethical pros and cons of life in the post 9/11 landscape that ultimately crashed and burned at the box office.
Tackling similar terrain by way of a completely different throughline, The American helmer Anton Corbijn turned to fictionalized nonfiction while bringing former real-life spy turned Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy master novelist John le Carré’s exploration of extraordinary rendition to the screen with this tautly stylish adaptation of A Most Wanted Man.
And since it takes a certain degree of performance to pull off life as a secret agent, it’s perhaps (tragically) fitting that the film features what wound up to be the last starring role for the late great thespian Philip Seymour Hoffman who heads up the Oscar caliber cast for Corbijn’s strongest character driven nail biter since his directorial debut via the Ian Curtis biopic Control.
A German intelligence agent, Hoffman's Günther Bachmann relies on tried-and-true Cold War era information-gathering techniques (such as turning sources, person-to-person observation, and sturdy shoe leather) to “make the weather," as he explains in a key meeting with representatives from other governments.
Radiating power and integrity while striving to retain control over a questionable situation involving a recent foreign arrival, as the film gets going, Bachmann must identify the real motives and missing pieces in the mysterious back-story of a half-Chechen, half-Muslim young man who’s arrived in Hamburg seeking asylum and his father’s willed fortune.
Still stung by the time he got it wrong before 9/11 (which the viewer gradually learns may have had more to do with foreign blame-shifting versus actual error), it’s up to Bachmann to ascertain whether the man is a genuine threat or someone whose innocence is being clouded by circumstance and the ever-changing weather of the political climate Bachmann’s team specializes in forecasting.
Hoping to catch a shark he’s had his eye on long before he was tasked with sizing up the newest on the scene as a minnow or a barracuda, the spies zero in on Rachel McAdams’s refugee rights activist and Willem Dafoe’s private banker – angling to turn those whose paths the man has crossed into bait.
Desperate to run the operation his way, Bachmann finds himself butting heads with an American agent (played with commanding presence by Robin Wright as the type of operative that her House of Cards alter ego would probably have on speed dial).
Claustrophobic and complex, while admittedly it is slanted more one direction as a work of liberal humanism indicative of le Carré's ouevre (and given the author's own admission), Man still admirably implores viewers to see both sides of the story by layering it with shadows and light.
Largely subtle on the whole, although it doesn’t tip its hat quite as noticeably as, say TV’s Scandal does with its over-the-top speechmaking, the success of this approach is both hit and miss, however.
Harking back to Corbijn’s past as a music video director, Wanted struggles at times with stagy “see it from the cheap seats” visually dominant character blocking, ignoring organic movement in favor of landing a few cool frame-within-a-frame shots of structural symbolism.
While thankfully minor, certain sequences weigh a little too heavily on the film’s otherwise impressive commitment to realism via foreshadowing that's obvious to everyone except for the super spies on the screen (such as in a critical moment during the penultimate scene when they fail to notice a suspicious car that calls an unbelievable amount of attention to itself).
Nonetheless still on par with the suspension of disbelief demanded during the thematically similar Showtime series Homeland, in the end the complete conviction of the ensemble cast keeps us firmly rooted to the yarn being unspooled in A Most Wanted Man.
Bringing all of the players together in a final sequence that hits us like an emotional tidal wave and also reaffirms the author’s point better than any one monologue or individual frame, the work captured by ace cinematographer Benoît Delhomme looks and sounds as lifelike as a documentary thanks to Lionsgate’s stellar high definition Blu-ray transfer.
Boasting a terrific behind-the-scenes featurette with former German-stationed British spy turned The Spy Who Came In From the Cold scribe John le Carré himself, the highly recommended extra takes you on a biographical, historical, and topical tour of the work, the man, and its political terrain.
Not shying away from sharing his own views on the issues that inspired le Carré and the film, the informative bonus material also invites you to compare and contrast other works about extraordinary rendition, while encouraging you to do some information-gathering of your own.
An excellent companion to the main attraction, the author hosted walk-and-talk is as engrossing as it is compelling – making me wish that somebody would take the time to bring the author’s own story to the screen as a superior saga of extraordinary espionage both on and off the page.
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