Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 5; Sex/nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
Caution: In the last two paragraphs of the review there might be spoilers.
Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
In 1963 former M15 and M16 agent John le Carre’s groundbreaking novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold rendered obsolete the old fictional spy stories depicting the All Noble spy system of the West valiantly fighting the Totally Evil KGB of the East. In this and succeeding novels the clear lines between black and white were blurred, something that is even more the case in this current le Carre-based film, adapted by Andrew Bovell and directed by Anton Corbijn. The film is well worth seeing not only because of its source, but even more, because it is the last opportunity to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman carry a film.
At the beginning of the movie we are told that the port city of Hamburg, Germany was where Mohammed Atta and his cohorts planned the attacks of 9/11. Numerous spies and political operatives still meet in Hamburg, so that virtually every international intelligence group, including the CIA and German spy agencies, follow closely the activities of the Islamic community. Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman, speaking in a believable German accent) once had a plum intelligence post overseas, but because of an unspecified failure or mistake has been sent to Hamburg. He is very interested in a new arrival, the man to which the film title refers, the half-Russian, half-Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who managed to escape from a Russian prison. Issa hopes to make a new life in Hamburg by securing the ill-gotten funds that his highly placed, but now deceased, Russian father had secreted away in one of the city’s banks. He bears a letter purportedly naming him as the heir. Or is he what he claims to be? The professionally skeptical Gunther intends to find out whether this most wanted man (by the spy agencies) is truly a victim of torture and oppression or an Islamic terrorist bent on using the funds to spread violence and mayhem around the world.
Other important characters we meet include Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), head of the Hamburg division of Germany’s intelligence service, whom Gunther regards as more of a hindrance than a help. He has to plead with Dieter not to pick up Issa for questioning, but rather to permit his team to follow him closely so they can discover his contacts. He is given 72 hours to track the man and discover the truth about him.
Also stationed in the city is CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), whom Gunther does not trust. He has observed over the years too many of that agency’s amoral (if not immoral) tactics, so he does not really believe her claim that “we do not do that any more.” They meet numerous times, their relationship becoming, if not more trusting, then at least more cordial. The CIA also is very interested in Issa as a possible link to important terrorist leaders, so she persists in asking to be included in Gunther’s program.
There is Annnabel (Rachel McAdams) a passionate human-rights attorney who is working with Issa as he makes contact with wealthy banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), custodian of the several million euros hidden away in his bank. In Gunther’s view this naïve lawyer might unintentionally be aiding and abetting a terrorist cell.
Last of all is Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a well known author, lecturer, and philanthropist who publicly denounces terrorism — however, Gunther suspects that this is a public façade beneath which lurks a clever jihadist.
The murky atmosphere within which all of the above operate is well described by Gunther at a meeting, “You are looking at me, at us. But we don’t exist, not legally, not officially, because German intelligence needs a job done that German law won’t let it do.” What motivates him is, as we hear twice, spoken by him and the CIA agent, the desire to “make the world a safer place.”
The screenplay and the novel reportedly were inspired by the true account of a Turkish citizen who was arrested in 2001 and then sent to Guantanamo Bay for questioning. Based on what we were shown in the film Zero Dark Thirty, I shudder at the thought of how he was treated. We are drawn to Gunther’s character because he genuinely wants to help Issa, although his means of doing so bend and twist the law, as both Issa and Annabel will learn.
Dieter and Sullivan, on the other hand, care nothing for Issa as a person. They regard him as a pawn, a small fish needed to catch a bigger fish. In their game with almost no rules they are willing to use Gunther himself.
In the old days (meaning before le Carre), the film would have concluded with a clear-cut victory of the Good Guys triumphing for t\Truth, Justice, and the American way of Life, very much like in one of the older Marvel Comics tales. The ending of this film will probably leave you with–well probably the face of Hoffman as we last see him, says it all—rage, frustration, and a sense of the falsity of Robert Browning’s assurance, “God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.” In Gunther’s world God might be in his Heaven, but everything seems to be all wrong in this world! Perhaps a reading of Psalm 2 might prevent the cynicism that this film could too easily create within us.
The feeling of sadness felt at the end of the film is not just because of what happens on the screen, but also engendered by the knowledge that we will never again see this great actor bring a character to life as only he could. The filmmakers have blessed us with a film that can stand as a great tribute to this irreplaceable actor.
The review with a set of 7 questions appears in the August 2014 issue of Visual Parables.