"Even good men have a little bit of bad in them"

“Even good men have a little bit of bad in them”

Everybody believes that they have the right answer. Sit in any diner on a Sunday morning, or any bar after a workday and you can hear conversation after conversation where people outline the tough situations they face. It could be something happening in their office, or something happening in the world at-large. So many of them believe that they know what needs to be done, and that if they had it their way, the world would be so much better off. What happens when these patrons of diners and bars get put into position of power…when their conflicting solutions put real lives in the balance?

In a post-9/11 world, Hamburg is a city under great scrutiny. It has become a gateway into the west for Muslim terrorists, and the staging crowd for some of the world’s most violent plans and acts. As such, it is heavily watched by anti-terrorism bodies from around the world. One of these bodies is a German outfit headed by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As our story begins, Bachmann’s outfit has their eyes on two men. The first is a high-profile, seemingly-peaceful Muslim scholar named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). While this man gives lectures about the need for peace and education within the muslim world, the powers that be believe he is a man who facilitates great evil – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The other man Bachmann’s team is watching is a stranger who has turned up in the Hamburg train station. Intelligence tells them his name is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), and his intentions are unknown to them.

Bachmann’s team keeps a close eye on him, seeing him find his way to a human rights lawyer telling the tale that he seeks asylum. The lawyer’s name is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), and she is quick to give Karpov all the help she can. A key detail that she can help with is in securing an inheritance that has been left for Karpov at a very high-end German bank. She goes, on his behalf, to meet Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Brue tells her that if Karpov is who he says he is, there is a very large sum of money waiting for him in the bank’s trust.

The question now becomes what Bachmann and his team will do knowing that a suspected terrorist is looking to withdraw a massive sum of funds – funds that will presumably be used to harm a lot of people. It’s a question that also has the CIA’s interest, and Bachmann has to play nice with an operative named Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) who also has interest in all involved.

Bachmann and Abdullah are both most wanted men…but different bodies want them for different reasons, and that’s a terrible position to be in.

McAdams and Dobrygin in A MOST WANTED MAN
As Bachmann, Phillip Seymour Hoffman does a lot of things depending on what is required to complete his mission. At times he plays father figure, at times he plays confidant. Sometimes he shows chilling precision, sometimes he shows weakness for vices. He is so many things to so many people, and in that we see not only what makes Bachmann so good at what he does, but also what made Hoffman so good at what he did. Bachmann is the sort of person who must be able to command any room he is in, but also blend into a crowd. Usually, one is able to do one or the other, but not both. Hoffman finds ways to be both sides of this coin, and usually without so much as raising his voice. He is able to seem wildly intimidating, and horribly overmatched depending on the moment. In many ways, this role is a fitting swan song for his talent, and a splendid exhibit of why he’ll be so missed.

The film itself isn’t a low-boil so much as it is a gentle simmer. Voices are raised very seldom, and prototypical “action” is almost completely absent. There is a very high-stakes game being played, but we aren’t watching the players or the ones calling the plays so much as we are watching the managers who sit high above the action in private boxes. They have just as much to do with the plays and counter-plays that are happening; sometimes it seems as though they designed the entire game. More than the players, these men and women who inhabit unmarked buildings are the ones who can truly affect the game’s outcome…and yet they so seldom step on the field.

If that sounds like a tough watch, well…it is.

What comes through though, in the absence of circus acts, is just how much is at stake when a mark is suspected of terrorism. On the surface, one might believe that to take the evil-doer and throw them into a windowless room will solve a great deal of problems. But what if it doesn’t? What if that foot soldier is immediately replaced with another the moment he fails to report up the chain? Then not only have those who fight for security failed to prevent the imminent danger, but they have also severed a link to learn more.

Thing is, there are those fighting this fight that don’t believe in such tactics. They believe that it’s best to lock up the suspect and get information that way. Once they use that information, they also believe in locking up the next person it leads them to. And so on, and so on, until they get to the top of the food chain.

These are two conflicting methods, and they play head-to-head in A MOST WANTED MAN. These methods have the potential to leave a lot of bodies on the ground – both literally and metaphorically – and the two methods seldom see eye-to-eye. The question then begs to be answered, as much as each side is playing the mark, how much are they playing each-other? What is the ultimate cost for an approach to counter-terrorism.

It leads to a question of legacy, a question that both Karpov and Bachmann will have to confront before the film is over. They will have to answer for what has happened in the past, and how they tried to atone. Whether or not those deeds or plans were fully within their control does not matter – what matters is what they were able to do. At the end of the day, when any of us are finally judged, do we get to say “well I wanted to do this…”? Or are we, unfortunately, made to stand for the mistakes and misdeeds of those around us?

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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