I have often described “Espionage” as an omnibus genre that can fold into its structure a variety of other genres. That can mean it sometimes hovers uncertainly between several plot poles. Different eras emphasise different aspects. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the central concern is a mystery: who is Karla’s agent inside the Circus? In The Human Factor, we already know who the traitor is because he’s a point of view character, we’re mostly uncertain about why. In Casino Royale the overwhelming concern is also trust – le Chiffre and Lynd die because they are untrustworthy but the details of the plot are those of a heist or caper. As the genre pushes this further and further, spies increasingly become unable to trust even themselves – the fatal flaw in Leamas’ understanding of the world in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is that he is not at all playing the role he thinks he is. In their genre survey, Rosenberg and Cawelti emphasise the secretive nature of the spy as primary:
The secret agent’s fictional milieu with its omnipresent hidden secrets and conspiracies presents a picture of the world which is half reality and half extension to the international scene of the gothic castle with its hidden passages, secret panels and lurking conspiracies.
The Spy Spory p. 56
The lack of trustworthiness has pervaded the genre until it is almost a total inevitability that the agents in the field will be betrayed. A Wilderness of Mirrors expresses this directly:
In the La Femme Nikita TV show (everybody should see
the first season), agents died left and right, but not
because the missions were dangerous (and they were
dangerous), but because Operations (the guy in charge)
deliberately kills them. As an Agent in Section One,
you never know when you may be put on “abeyance.”
When an agent was put on abeyance, it meant he was
disposable. You never knew.
When betrayal becomes a central and inevitable storytelling ploy, the challenge changes from concealing this surprise to making betraying more dramatically interesting than not betraying. Similarly, in a murder mystery, the challenge is not “will there be a murder”, but “how interesting can I make the murder”. The big problem with A Most Wanted Man is that it is operating on the superseded dramatic paradigm where there is a mere possibility of betrayal. It regards that betrayal as sufficient in itself, and doesn’t use it for anything else – the stakes are straightforward, lacking orthogonal factors.
This basic lack of dramatic fluency in the genre hampers the film much as Corbijn’s previous outing, The American, which similarly places all its weight on genre unfamiliarity for it’s “shocking betrayal”. We’re left, as with that film, with a beautifully shot and evocative mood piece, but here the cast is dissolute and sprawling, meaning that most of the fantastic actors drafted in have nothing to do (Nina Hoss is criminally under-used and I don’t think Daniel Bruhl even has a spoken line. I mean, come on people!). Robin Wright does her best to sell us her CIA smooth-talker, but her naked functionality in the plot destines her to failure. Realising that this was based on a John le Carre novel, I nonetheless left the cinema with the impression that this is what you get when a film-maker dabbles in a genre they fundamentally don’t understand.