Last month in The Guardian, spy novelist Charles Cumming wrote an essay postulating that modern technology has killed the spy thriller. It’s hardly a new idea, with other writers in recent years pointing out that many of the tools used to create suspense in older films are now impossible when someone can just make a cellphone call, or discover a person’s true identity with a quick Google search. It’s a compelling argument, but one film currently playing in cinemas, A Most Wanted Man, proves that modern technology is no impediment to suspenseful storytelling.
It’s true that older films had an easier time creating suspense when contemporary technology necessarily meant everything took more time, and in cinema, time equals suspense. Cumming points out a few examples. In John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the movie adapted from it, the plot hinges on a character playing double agent in an elaborate plan. Cumming points out, “an East German computer and telecommunications whizz would have analysed Leamas’s digital trail and inevitably found a flaw in his backstory.” It’s an assumption, of course, but a good one.
Cumming also makes the case that this modern technological problem is the reason some of the best modern spy thrillers are, in fact, period pieces. He gives as his best example, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another John le Carré adaptation, and one of the best films of the decade. The film is one, he says, “in which the mole is cornered not by a laptop or an iPhone, but by something as simple as a missing piece of paper torn from an MI6 file.”
The simplicity and effectiveness of such a plot device is undeniable. If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy took place today, the identity of the mole would be uncovered by some Internet searches and maybe triangulating calls on a cellphone. The movie would also be about 10 minutes long. Set the film in the modern day and it loses all steam. Of course, there’s a fault in the writer’s logic here that he seems blind to. That is, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a book written in the 1970s, using the contemporary technology, and more importantly, the contemporary intelligence culture to tell a story about human behaviour. There isn’t any reason a modern story set in the modern time can’t do the same things, even using modern technology.
Many suspense films set in the present are, frankly, lazily written. Filmmakers have the pre-computer stories as their precedents, so instead of creatively responding to modern concerns, they craft stories with older beats, and with a few shortcuts added. The most common shortcut is the cellphone that can’t find a signal. Not sure about you, but the number of times I’m without a cell signal each day is close to zero. It’s a hacky way to create suspense. Similarly hacky are scenes where the heroes need 30 seconds to triangulate a caller’s location; or ones in which the villains find a way to erase all trace of themselves online; or scenes of someone trying to download a file and it’s just. taking. too. long.
Hacky movies shouldn’t be our bar, though. It’s fitting that one of the best films to dispute Cumming’s claims is also a John le Carré adaptation. A Most Wanted Man, the new film featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance, is based on the Carré novel of the same name, published in 2008. It’s 100% post-9/11 spy material, with a focus on domestic counter-terrorism intelligence gathering in Hamburg, Germany. The film makes modern surveillance technology an intrinsic part of its story, because in real life it is intrinsic. Data is compiled at breakneck pace, but the film never dwells on that side of things because it’s not particularly cinematic. Instead, much of the technology on display involves tiny cameras and microphones set up to watch targets.
The film’s most suspenseful sequence involves the German intelligence agents watching a man as he decides whether to sign documents at a bank. And therein lies the rebuke to Cumming’s point: Spy stories are a great vehicle for displaying cutting-edge tech, but the tech can only be tangential to the real focus — human behaviour. A Most Wanted Man is, on its surface, a story about trying to catch elusive criminals in the modern world, but beneath that it’s about the ways in which people respond to the complex moral dilemmas facing them.
Anton Corbijn directs A Most Wanted Man with expert calmness. His objective isn’t thrill-a-minute entertainment. The film seethes with moral anguish over the state of the world. The “enemy” is no longer well defined, and the tools and methods used to fight the bad guys are more questionable than ever. Hoffman’s Gunther is a man trying his best to capture the truly bad people without destroying the lives of people who simply make mistakes. It’s a delicate balance, and through the layering of moral predicaments, the suspense slowly builds until that incredibly tense bank scene, followed by one of the best gut-punch endings in years.
Characters in the film balance family loyalty, anger over injustices, answering to authority, and doing the right thing. It’s pure human drama, set in the context of intelligence work, and modern technology is only a tool for the exploration. A Most Wanted Man is a model for how to approach the spy thriller in the modern age, and a reminder of what those older examples did best. The great spy stories have never been about technology. They’ve always been about the people. So long as modern writers and filmmakers keep their eyes on human beings, the technology will take care of itself.
Corey Atad is a Staff Writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.