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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

A Most Wanted Man

Brilliant Espionage Thriller That Explores False Promises Surrounding Safety

“You’re looking at me, at us, but we don’t exist, not legally, not officially, because German intelligence needs a job to be done that German law won’t let it do, so me and my people, we stay small. We stay on the streets. We make the weather. Our sources don’t come to us. We find them. We become their friends, their brothers, their fathers, their lovers if we have to. When they’re ours and only then, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) speaks these words to a board of people so insightfully as though he hasn’t explained this all to them before. As if he has even the smallest chance of getting through to them. As if they’re capable of being more evolved. Bachmann leads a converted German intelligence team in Hamburg who is interested in watching suspects of links to terrorist groups and turning informants higher and higher up the chain while protecting the naive and broken who are caught in the crossfires.

German security official Morh (Rainer Bock) and American diplomatic attache Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) take an interest in two of Bachmann's investigations: Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a respected Muslim philanthropist Bachmann’s team suspects of funneling a small portion of his legitimate funds to al-Qaeda and Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a political refugee from Chechnya who has been tortured by Russian security forces who just illegally entered Hamburg. Mohr and Sullivan both appear simple-minded and interested in merely capturing suspects regardless of guilt or future usefulness. Bachmann has been disgraced in the past after several of his networks were blown but is a sophisticated operative who distrusts politicians and American intelligence agents.

Through two people who take him off the streets, Issa is able to get into contact with immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel Mcadams) who helps put him in contact with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a wealthy banker whose father had long ago done money laundering for Issa’s father. Issa shows Brue a letter from Brue’s father to him, along with a key to a safe deposit box. Brue informs Issa and Annabel that Issa is the legal heir to a multi-million-euro account long held by Brue’s bank. Issa only wants asylum and refuses the money insisting it’s unclean. At Bachmann’s request, Annabel convinces Issa to donate the funds to Abdullah’s organization in the hope that Abdullah will reroute some of the funds to a shipping company acting as a front for al-Qaeda. Bachmann plans to use this proof of guilt to turn Abdullah and pursue those higher up.

The roadblocks from higher intelligence that makes it difficult for Bachmann to carry out his job is the most frustrating conflict within A Most Wanted Man. Hoffman’s final performance here is one I always felt was robbed of an Oscar. The ruggedness of his hands and the tiredness in his eyes really are that of a man who knows how to get things done but the world stands in his way. He doesn’t accept defeat until it’s absolutely too late and by then, so many other people are involved. The things that come crashing down when you least expect them always seem to be at the expense of other people. Bachmann and his team are the ones who genuinely care about keeping people safe while his superiors are only ever out for themselves.

Mcadams is equally as captivating as a woman who up until now has been able to carry out her job independently. Issa comes with so much baggage and there’s only so much Annabel can do on her own. Bachmann’s team eventually ambush her on the street, drag her into their van and take her to their agency. By this point, Annabel is just as drained as Bachmann. She’s seen clients time and time again face a lack of support from a higher power and initially believes Bachmann’s team is no different. She is proven wrong as she lies on her cell bed in exhaustion, her body completely turned away from Bachmann who just walked into the cell and sat down close to her.

Bachmann: “You know what my guys told me? When they pulled you off the street? You didn’t put up a fight. Not really. You struggled a bit, screamed a little but you let them take you. It’s almost as if you wanted it to happen. You needed someone to take it out of your hands because you are out of your depth Annabel. You know you can’t save him, not on your own. Your choice is between us and nobody. The clock is ticking. You know they’ll find him, and when they do, he’ll be on the first plane back to Russia, unless the Americans want him and then we won’t know where he is, and nor will he.

Annabel: “He doesn’t want the money. He JUST doesn’t want it.”

Bachmann: “Half radical, half rich kid. Half Russian, half Chechen. Loves his mother, and hates his father. You and I both know Issa Karpov has no idea what he wants. There is something ELSE you and I both know, don’t we? We both know he’s innocent.”

Annabel: “So what do you want?”

Bachmann: ……………………..”I want to help him.”

I remember the first time I saw A Most Wanted Man in a tiny cinema on Nantucket. I remember feeling saddened because I thought all the characters wanted the same thing, they just had really different ideas about how to make it happen. I was young and naive. They don’t want the same thing. Bachmann’s team wants to help lost, broken and confused people help them make the world safer. The government simply wants to do whatever they can to keep as many people they don’t like out of what little safety there is left in our country.

A Most Wanted Man is a film many people should watch in these times or rewatch. Agencies like the ones in the film promote an ideology that just doesn’t exist anymore. That the most powerful people in charge of protecting us really care about doing that. That safety is possible. Safety doesn’t exist anymore. It is becoming a small memorable token from a past life more and more each day. Sometimes I fantasize about escaping to another country in a few years. I just might if things don’t improve but who am I kidding? There’s blood on the streets in every country. You can’t escape it. It’ll follow you. If you ever have that feeling in your gut that something’s just not right and you have an idea of what you should do, you should always listen to it. The PULSE in your veins that starts running faster is always the one who knows you best.

Phillips, M. (2022). ‘Emily the Criminal’ review: In a tough, lean LA crime story, Aubrey Plaza charges it all the way. newstimes. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from

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