What I appreciated most about this John le Carre movie was the lesson in the nature of power and what happens when someone tries to apply it in a principled and ethical manner.
The protagonist played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is a German investigator involved in counter-terrorism. He's trying to work intelligently, to see the big picture and to go after the big players. He's trying to apply principles like equity and efficiency to his investigations and thus the power he wields when he's arresting people and depriving them of their freedom. He wishes to leave out the naive people, the 'small fries' who are swept up into the net. There's no point in just arresting people who aren't a threat. Instead he seeks to utilize them to go after the higher placed conspirators, the real evil forces at work. It's an old tactic but not always one that's applied.
Of course along the way he's using his power to threaten and intimidate people, to overpower and invade their lives. It also becomes clear he's driven by self-justification, attempting to assuage his own guilt, and to some degree a desire for self-satisfaction.
Does he wish to serve his nation? Ironically like many such placed people he actually knows what his nation is... he sees the dregs, the ugly side of society. There are no illusions about human nature, but like many people in such places, they are driven obsessively in an almost machine-like manner. There's nothing else. The quest is his life. It's the 'self' cloaked in sociological meaning. Like many others he finds his identity in his job, a world he can master and control, gain security and respect.
But it's all rather empty. There's no real satisfaction. There's no peace apart from the turmoil of the work. The worst thing to do is stop and look around and see what it is he's really working to build and defend. Does his work have meaning? That's a question a lot of people in government, finance or even just the business world at large are afraid to ask.
He has seen so many destroyed lives and in fact his is one of them. It affords him a certain amount of empathy, but also drives him to act and preempt.
He wants to use principles like equity and mercy, proportionality to exercise power, but the higher-ups in the German security services and their CIA masters want results, tangible numbers, verifiable progress measured by arrests, removals and/or eliminations. Post 9/11 the drag net approach has been in effect. Round them up and then in many cases torture them for information and/or throw away the key.
Hoffman thinks he's fishing and utilizes the interesting illustration of catching barracudas and minnows, and using them to get sharks. He doesn't understand he's also a barracuda that his masters will happily throw away. They care nothing for his principles but if someone were below him trying to act in the same way... he would trample them in his quest for power. He's presented as a sympathetic figure, but I don't think so. He's a dog in a dog eat dog world.
The only morality for power is to win. All considerations about sportsmanship and rules are really just sentimentality. This is equally true with regard to economics, academics and basically any other field that operates as a hierarchy within the larger hierarchy of society. This is the frustration of the bureaucracy and the insanity of the power-mad bureaucrat.
In the end power itself ends up making the rules, or to put it another way defines the markets. Power itself sets the parameters of social orthodoxy and that's true not only in terms of behaviour but cognition itself.
Those seeking Power have no interest in Truth, no poverty of spirit, sense of meekness or mourning... Instead they are controlled by pride, seek aggrandizement, harbour revenge and live for glorying in the presence of others.
On a worldly level, the CIA and German officials of the BfV/BND aren't the fools or even villains for using a bulldozer to clear a vegetable garden. They're doing their job in a fast and efficient manner. The movie may wish to portray Hoffman as the principled good guy, but he isn't. He's the fool. He's the cheetah that catches the pray, they're the hyenas that steal it. He's grieved at the unnecessary destruction of life and views it as detrimental to the whole of the mission. And yet he's just as guilty of exercising power over others. Morally he has nothing to say. That's why he acts as he does in the end. There's no point in any of it and he finally realizes it.
The moral thing to do is to quit and walk away.
The heroes, if such a term can employed with a degree of ambiguity are the Chechen, the lawyer and the Turks who aided him, ultimately the non-power people.
That's probably not the intended message, but that's one we can take away from the film. These are the people who aren't seeking power. They're almost like pilgrims, people trying to survive.
Ironically Hoffman's character doesn't understand the nature of the mission, which is to preserve promote and expand power. He thought it was about cutting out a cancer but leaving the body healthy. He thought it was about fixing problems and doing what was right. His masters couldn't care less about those things.
They're not worried about society. They're worried about power. Society is only of concern when instability affects their power. In many ways as we've seen power thrives on crisis, enemies, perceived enemies, and the ability to frighten. The public willingly gives more power to the Establishment. We've been living it since 2001.
They don't care if lives are destroyed. It's not even a consideration. Philip Seymour Hoffman's life is also destroyed. They don't care. Those above them won't care if the individuals managing the CIA or the German BND are destroyed. It's the law of the jungle and only the strongest survive.
This idea that principles can be worked into power-paradigms, that there can be such a thing as 'good' and limited government or that markets can managed by moral principles. It's really quite absurd. Only a Pelagian who denies man's proclivity to evil can believe such things. Even the pro-market argument that self-interest regulates it is still based on the assumption that people in their self-interest won't seek to manipulate reality, feelings, supply and demand.
Hobbes was wrong about a great many things, but his most famous quote is more or less accurate. Life is indeed nasty, brutish and short. Nihilism is the only viable option for an honest pagan or materialist. As Christians we know better, we have an alternative. We can provide meaning and purpose in this life, which because of the curse is still pretty nasty, brutish and short. We're never promised otherwise and in fact as believers in Christ we're promised that those who inhabit this oh-so-pleasant world will hate us and want to kill us. And yet because we know the truth and have been given a blessed hope we will happily endure the world Hobbes described so well. Our hope is not here but in the Age to Come.
All attempts to reform this world or attempt to create conditions that can nullify the curse or provide happiness in this age, are both folly and representative of a less than Biblical anthropology.
Hobbes in his erroneous proposal, didn't allow for conscience but it must be admitted that even he as a lost man understood something of human nature and its penchant to be selfish. Selfishness is necessarily and virtually by definition - antisocial. It leads to war and anarchy. We're seeing it the fruits of a system that has set itself up over the world. It's just sadly ironic that this is the system that so many Christians have decided to champion... albeit in a purer, romanticised form.
Machiavelli was essentially right in terms of power. Status Post Lapsum, as things are after the Fall, that's how the world will always work. You can play by the 'rules' but why should others do so, especially when the prize is so high? Victory means re-writing the rules. If we're called to integrity it means we have to live and more importantly think differently. If we end up being 'losers' as the world reckons it, then that's our calling. Christ was a 'loser' too.
You can take the movie as a criticism of American policy, anti-bureaucracy or as reflecting the complexities of being caught in a struggle between social obligation and individual dignity.
As a Christian, I take the movie as a stark lesson in the nature of power and the futility of attempting to create and implement principles which will somehow govern that power.
Here's the thing, if you really and truly believe your paradigm is the best for the situation, then preserving your position of power takes on a moral life of its own. Consequentialism reigns supreme and the end justifies the means because once again the only end that matters is to win/retain power. Rather than struggle to do good, you struggle to hold on to your power so that you can do good. And you lose your way.
Tolkien's lessons regarding the Ring of Power are illustrative of this. To identify the ring as allegorical nuclear weapons or something along those lines is to miss the point. It's much more basic. The ring is about power, or more specifically absolute or total power. That's why even the 'good' like Gandalf and Galadriel dare not handle it. This is where Tolkien's illustration as good as it is ultimately fails. Because even non-absolute power seeks the absolute and must strive with other powers in order to maintain itself. The striving itself is a corrupting influence.
Do you think this is any different in economics? Economics is inseparable from politics. Even the Anarcho-capitalists must admit that. Your supposed non-vote or vote in your purchases either empowers someone or takes it away. Profit is the power to produce more and grants security. Is it a great leap in logic then to understand that the more 'votes' you have, the more power you have?
Your majority vote (for example you and your allies) rigs the market. This can happen even if you don't mean it to. If you are generating a massive demand, then you've been granted power.
If you can legitimately and ethically control the demand... why wouldn't you control the supply?
Will you restrain yourself due to ideological adherence to true market principles? Are you ethically bound to desire and demand some competition? Will you therefore restrain your profits?
Try telling that to stockholders, let alone yourself.
Of all people, Stalin understood power. He was a master at acquiring it and manipulating it. He proves that you don't have to be highly educated, just willing and in his case cunning.
Why isn't world full of Stalin's? Actually it is. Thankfully most of them are restrained. This is why even bad and tyrannical government is better than no government. Chaos produces monsters.
But there are also many who want and live for praise instead of fear. Their goal is the same, but they try to go about it in a different way and wield the power through a different front. We all know people like this.
Former president GHW Bush can be the 'grandpa' figure, and can feel good about himself, because he's praised not feared, and good when he compares himself to Stalin.
But is he more moral? In principle no. The only difference between Bush and Stalin is the numbers. He too is responsible for mass death, theft and destruction.
In the end he's what Stalin is. Maybe he didn't have the guts or the cunning. Or more likely was too worried about being praised by the segments of society that he revered.
God restrains men from becoming Stalin's through various means and we can be thankful for them even if the motives of the lost for restraining their lusts are less than godly.
Power is a central theme to the New Testament and the ethic it presents for Christians. It is often missed in the writings of Peter and Paul and yet once your eyes are open it's quite glaring. It's all the more striking how the message of Christ and His Apostles have been utterly misunderstood and manipulated by the majority of those who have proclaimed His name.
Power wedded to Christian doctrine and ethics is but another poison invented by the enemy and one that in the end corrupts the whole of doctrine and eliminates New Covenant ethics. Once more like the prophets of old we are confronted with a people who call on the name of the Lord and yet make black, white and white, black. They call evil, good and good, evil.