A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast to tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Is this the conference room at the heart of British Intelligence or a middle rung in Dante's hell?

During the height of the Cold War, a botched extraction in Budapest forces the head of British Intelligence (John Hurt as Code Name: Control) to resign, and “The Circus” goes through a house cleaning.  Not content with a forced retirement, veteran spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in a devilishly subtle performance) becomes determined to weed out the alleged mole at the top of The Circus.  It slowly becomes clear that Smiley is involved in a master chess game against a Soviet counterpart named Karla (who remains mysteriously just off-screen) – a man he failed to turn years earlier and who knows Smiley’s one weakness.  The biggest mystery isn’t the identity of the mole but which of these master craftsmen in the world of espionage is going to pull a check mate on the other.

Ah, John le Carre - no one does wearisome white-knuckle ennui quite like the anti-Ian Fleming and successor of Graham Greene in the foggy world of thinking men’s spy novels.  Think of this new film adaptation of his 1970′s classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (representing the code names given to those under watch) as The Usual Suspects for senior citizens.  Continue reading

Living in GreeneLand

*Photo coutesy of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust at www.grahamgreenebt.org

CAPTION:  From these humble beginnings at Berkhamsted School, Graham Greene grew up to travel the world and gave to his readers a land to call their own.

For the past three years I’ve been living in GreeneLand.  For those who have never visited, it’s sometimes hard to explain my love for the place.  Friends and family know I’m always reading two things: Graham Greene and something else.  I’m currently reading The Quiet American, which in 1955 was the first major work to warn of entanglement in the Vietnam conflict.  If I were asked to pick any person living or dead to have a one-on-one conversation with, I would chose to share a bottle of scotch with Graham Greene.  He was in his prime during the WWII era and died in 1991, but his works are just as relevant today as they were when first published.  He’s the rare author who is just as popular with readers as he is with his peers and aspiring writers, renowned for his commercial and critical success, and he’s among the most influential and widely read English language novelists of the 20th century.  As far as I’m concerned, he’s also the best. Continue reading

A Review of Alan Furst’s “The Spies of Warsaw”

A Novel

3.0 out of 5 stars Atmospheric and Meandering
Reviewed by:   David H. Schleicher “Author of The Thief Maker”

- See all my reviews

Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a military attache and French spy living in Poland, begins an affair with a lovely Polish lawyer named Anna while trying to obtain inside information on Germany’s planned invasion of France in Alan Furst’s atmospheric and meandering The Spies of Warsaw.

Meticulously researched, Furst overloads the novel with historical details, and the dizzying onslaught of backwoods locales, small town visits, city districts, street names, aristocrats, military personnel and working-class spies makes it sometimes hard to keep track of where all the characters are and what they are doing. Furst spends just as much time on the private lives and social interactions of the spies who populate this novel as he does on their clandestine wheeling and dealing. There are many entertaining and atmospheric scenes that take place at swanky parties or night clubs where characters scope out their next lover while simultaneously seducing their next contact or target.

The Spies of Warsaw is the first novel I have read by Furst. I was drawn to him by the frequent comparisons to John Le Carre and Graham Greene (my favorite writer). Furst certainly scores in the atmosphere and details department. He puts the reader firmly and comfortably in place on the streets and in the bedrooms of Warsaw while capturing the malaise that covered much of Europe during the years leading up to World War II where many people carried on with their lives and affairs while knowing that “something” was about to happen and feeling there wasn’t much that could be done to stop it. However, Furst doesn’t deliver the character development or story arcs that Le Carre so often does. Furst’s writing also lacks the deep psychological and spiritual complexities that made Graham Greene’s spy novels so richly rewarding. Though peppered with intimate and exact details, Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw never gets deep inside the minds or hearts of the people he writes about.

Though an entertaining read thanks in large part to Furst’s sometimes conversational and dryly humorous narrative voice, The Spies of Warsaw exists mostly at the surface level. The larger events surrounding the content of the novel were certainly building towards a world altering period of history, but Furst’s characters continue to meander and seem to go nowhere, while the plot builds to an anticlimactic finish. Fans of popular spy novels and historical fiction should be pleased, but those wanting something a bit more might be disappointed.

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Recommendations for further reading:

Absolute Friends by John Le Carre

Our Man in Havana and The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene