The History Place - Movie Review

A Most Wanted Man

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

John Le Carre’s break-through novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was also his first to become a major motion picture, a darned good one starring Richard Burton as the British agent of the title.  The novel cum film also introduced George Smiley, the master spy immortalized by Sir Alec Guinness in the first celluloid rendition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which reprised on the silver screen several years ago.  Le Carre, who is aging like a very fine wine, has had many more of his novels translated into movies.

This year it’s A Most Wanted Man, the enactment of Le Carre’s 2009 cautionary tale of what happens to human rights when national security is too firmly in the saddle.  Set in Hamburg, it’s the tale of a Russo-Chechnyan Muslim who illegally enters Germany in pursuit of his father’s ill-gotten boodle.  The laundered funds are in the hands of an Anglo-German banker, played by Willem Defoe.  Rachel McAdams is the refugee’s pro bono attorney.  This hapless threesome make a deal with the devil, aka, a German counter-terrorism agent, played with Guinness-like restraint by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  This was Hoffman’s last stand before his untimely demise by drug overdose; if go he must, this was a splendid exit.


The fugitive claims he has no interest in his Soviet-papa’s plunder, allegedly derived from human trafficking and the like.  Rather he wants to donate the dirty dollars to Muslin charities.  Hoffman’s professional spook seizes the chance to entrap a prominent Muslim philanthropist, suspected of diverting a little piece of every charitable gift to jihadist militants.  To Hoffman’s spymaster, the illegal immigrant with his blood-spattered millions is the minnow, who will hook the barracuda, who will ultimately catch a shark. 

Unfortunately for Hoffman and his team, both the federal police and the American CIA in the person of Robin Wright would rather net the minnow and the barracuda – and just incidentally some favorable headlines.  Grudgingly, they give their overweight, hard-drinking, chain-smoking spook/colleague a 72-hour leash on which to haul his operation to fruition, before they intend to jump with both feet onto the suspects’ necks.

Le Carre has been cranking out one-cut-above spy novels for some sixty years, including two more since A Most Wanted Man.  Planting his flag firmly in the Cold War genre of the sixties through the eighties, he never missed a beat in the face of the 1989 détente highlighted by the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  His oeuvre of the nineties and the new millennium is populated by arms dealers, shady financiers, and terrorists, along with the few good men (and women) who carry on the fight that didn’t end with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The McAdams and Hoffman characters in A Most Wanted Man are both reminiscent of LeCarre’s Cold War anti-heroes and at the same time distinctively millennial types.  If the theme of classics such as Smiley’s People is “Good people sometimes must do bad things to destroy evil,” the message of his recent works might be (to paraphrase a another Cold War icon, Pogo), “We have met the enemy and now they are us.”

Somehow, in the era of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the planet was neither incinerated nor enslaved.  Just as the ultimate Cold Warrior, Ronald Reagan, predicted, the Evil Empire crumbled and spun apart.  Democracy triumphed over totalitarianism, capitalism triumphed over communism, and America triumphed over everybody else.  The nineties dawned as the zenith of the American century.  Optimistic blather about the end of poverty proliferated.  Hubris was the word of the day, every day.

And then, with seeming suddenness (though the roots ran deep), a motley crew of rogue states and radical Islamic organizations hit a preening Uncle Sam and his Western allies with a series of jabs in places, such as New York, where they really hurt.  The West’s response, Le Carre seems to be saying in A Most Wanted Man, has been to swat every fly with a sledgehammer – to arrest them all and let Guantanamo sort them out – due process be damned in the name of a panic-driven techno-vigilance that smacks of the police states Reagan and Thatcher so loudly, and so recently, condemned.

Rated R for language.

Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is  His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).

A Most Wanted Man - Official Website
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