Saturday, February 21, 2015


Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams,
Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Robin Wright,
Grigoriy Dobrygin

This movie adaptation of John Le Carre's novel is an absorbing spy thriller reminiscent of Cold War espionage films. The premise is in a post 9/11 arena where the intelligence agencies around the world are still on high alert when it comes to pinpointing any person of interest who might pose a clear and present danger to the general populace. It is set in Hamburg, Germany which the opening text states as the site where Mohammed Atta planned the September 11 attacks. 

The main characters are part of a small covert German counter terrorism intelligence unit whose main function is to cultivate sources within the city's Islamic community. It is headed by Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles) who works in a decrepit office and it is obviously clear that his resources and funding are quite limited, well given that officially their unit does not exist in the grand scheme of government agencies so he is in constant clash with the city's legitimate defense and security agencies, as well as with other intelligence agencies like the CIA.

Yet somehow they all come together as they investigate the sudden appearance into Hamburg of a suspicious Chechen and known militant jihadist named Issa Karpov. The film early on sets the tone on the great lengths that Bachmann goes to in establishing the wide and complex surveillance operations on their target. Bachmann decides to keep an eye on Karpov in the hope that he can be used as a bait for the bigger fish. He thinks this may be his chance to nab a moderate Muslim academic who may be channeling money to terrorists. This approach runs counter productive with the main agenda of the security/defense/intelligence agencies. So a game of cat and mouse ensues, amidst a tangled mess that also involves a human rights attorney and a banker with dubious dealings ... the clever machinations is quite fascinating to watch.

A typical slow burn spy movie with surveillance scenes, waiting in cars, negotiating with as well as intimidation of witnesses - all done in a bleak, dreary cinematographic tone. The city itself seems to be steeped in gloom. Visuals of dark streets, seedy bars, rundown apartments and hi tech office buildings - a palpable world of displaced people - spies and suspects alike - all struggling  for meaning and acceptance in a city that isn't too welcoming.

A cast composed of good and solid actors like Nina Hoss, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright add much weight to the cynical and somber tone of this spy thriller. 

But mostly it is the much valued presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman who made this provocative movie worth watching.  He makes a brilliant spy in the classic John Le Carre mold - his characterization of Bachmann is determinedly sharp and quite precise. Physically, he is a mess - disheveled, chain smoking and possibly a heavy drinker. Yet mentally he is a loner of strong resolve who is fully aware of his failures in past missions but also uses his flaws to his advantage. My only 'complaint' was Hoffman's on and off German accent but it was just a minor distraction.

I conclude by saying that the final outcome of this film was so unbearably tense and I had no indication it was going to end that way. The frustration was quite visible on Hoffman's face but my frustration also rose when I realized we would never see him portray again these type of roles or any role for that matter. Tragically sad!

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