A Most Wanted Man and the Gospel of Existentialism by: Blaine Grimes

Posted: August 21, 2014 by jperritt in Action, Drama, Thriller
Tags: , , , ,

manIn many instances, espionage movies are guilty of delivering constant, voluminous amounts of information very quickly. With a plethora of countries, characters, and political contexts to navigate, it often seems like screenwriters enjoy confounding their audience. However,A Most Wanted Man, a newly released adaptation of the John le Carré novel of the same name, is a notable exception to the norm. The superbly written script, combined with the haunting soundtrack, sparsely beautiful cinematography, a breathtaking performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the steady-handed direction of Anton Corbijn, make it one of the best recent entries into the genre and one of my favorite films of the year. A Most Wanted Man is a plodding film— one that offers the right amount of information at precisely the right time. Unlike so many films in the genre (a number of which are good movies), A Most Wanted Man invites you to carefully consider what is being shown.[1] It is, therefore, eminently and intentionally understandable–but not in the mindless, spoon-fed vein of most blockbusters. It is not just the narrative twists and turns that we are meant to contemplate either. Indeed, A Most Wanted Man is characterized by a pronounced existential angst, despair, and cynicism.

A Most Wanted Man follows Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), a German intelligence agent who must decide what to do when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim with known terrorist connections, illegally enters Hamburg. Günther is trying to build an intelligence network in Germany, but it soon becomes apparent that his higher-ups are only concerned with looking good in front of the media. The primary conflict, then, is not between Bachmann and Karpov—as one might naturally suspect—but between Bachmann and the bureaucracy. Bachmann wants to use Karpov to lead him to bigger targets. Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), Bachmann’s immediate superior, fears that such a strategy will result in “blood on the streets” of Hamburg.

Tonally, the film bears all the marks of a le Carré adaption. The world of A Most Wanted Man is thoroughly existentialist—devoid of God and any sort of telos. A recurring line of dialogue brings the film’s existentialism to the forefront. When Bachmann asks American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) why the intelligence exists, her cynical response is, “to make the world a better place.” Sadly, neither of them believes it. In truth, they do what they do only because they are good at it. And it is what they do that defines them. The results of this way of life are most clearly seen in Bachmann—a miserable man filled with despair, a man who is forced to confront the apparent meaninglessness of his existence. By the time the film arrives at its tragic conclusion, it is obvious that A Most Wanted Man has no hope to offer—only a gospel of emptiness.

The sad thing is that Günther Bachmann’s view of reality in A Most Wanted Man is not simply a cinematic invention, an unpleasant fiction. I fear there are many Günther Bachmanns in the world. There are people who have either suppressed their knowledge of the truth or rejected the gospel of Christ outright in favor of a vacuous existence. They find no meaning in work; relationships prove to be unsatisfying. And when they fail at a task around which they have built their identity, there is a sadness that cannot be removed. R.C. Sproul points out that existential worldviews provide a fertile ground for the preaching of the gospel, which is a daily reminder that life is indeed meaningless apart from Christ. It calls us out of our self-absorbed lives and tells us that our ultimate purpose is to glorify God. Christians, let us be salt and light to the Günther Bachmanns in our lives.

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[1] Among other things, the film is a criticism of the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11, rendition, and torture. I point this out because I want to be clear that my appreciation of the film does not mean I condone the political views contained therein.

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