A Most Wanted Man
Directed By: Anton Corbijn
Written by: Andrew Bovell (screenplay), John Le Carre (novel)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin
The world has changed a lot since the Cold War, but maybe not as much as we think. Legendary British author John Le Carre has been penning some of the most realistic portrayals of espionage since the ’60s, drawing from his own experiences working for both MI5 and MI6. Described as the “anti-James Bond”, his stories often focus on the mundane details of the business, dealing in shades of grey rather than clear cut heroes and villains. This is essentially the same vision that he brings to a post-9/11 world in A Most Wanted Man.
After the acclaim for Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Le Carre’s books are seemingly back in demand on screen, but the contemporary setting makes this one all the more relevant. Set in Hamburg, Germany, the very same port city where Mohammed Atta planned the 9/11 attacks, it illustrates the painstaking effort and endless compromise required to stay vigilant against terrorism. The fact that it also happens to feature one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances is merely icing on the cake.
Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the grizzled head of a German counter-terrorism unit doing his best to keep tabs on the city’s Islamic community. When a mysterious man arrives in Hamburg via train looking disheveled and defeated, he seeks shelter with a Muslim family and reaches out to a young human rights lawyer to help him lay claim to a family inheritance. Bachmann suspects he is an escaped militant jihadist, but with the help of the lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a bank owner (Willem Dafoe) and a CIA agent (Robin Wright), he attempts to set a trap to discover the truth about the man’s identity.
While it might be fair to expect another dense and complicated plot in the vein of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the main thrust of A Most Wanted Man is actually fairly straightforward. Screenwriter Andrew Bovell (Edge of Darkness) has constructed a script that is stripped down and easy to follow while offering complexity in how it portrays the push and pull of the various parties involved, each protecting their own interests. The second half of the film does lose momentum for a while as there is seemingly little suspense or conflict, but the film’s conclusion kicks in with an unexpected and purposely unsatisfying finale that provides a biting commentary on world politics.
Anton Corbijn previously directed The American starring George Clooney, which is another textured, slow burn spy flick. That movie also focused on the technical details of the job, but Clooney’s character was a lone-wolf assassin. A Most Wanted Man has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with behind the scenes negotiation and coercion. With the exception of a chase scene in the middle of the film, there is very little traditional action and the most suspenseful scene in the movie is arguably one in which a character is simply signing some papers.
It should come as no surprise that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is remarkable and the centerpiece of the film. It is just one more unique role that showcases his versatility as he dons a convincing German accent with ease. Although we don’t know much about Bachmann, Hoffman gives the character so much depth simply in how he carries himself. At age 46, Hoffman’s career was just starting to open up to older characters like this and one can’t help contemplating what else he might have had in store if things had turned out differently.
To be fair, he is also surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Grigoriy Dobrygin is mostly unknown here in North America but he previously starred in Timur Bekmambetov’s blockbuster Russian superhero film Black Lightning. He plays the titular and enigmatic “wanted” man, Issa Karpov, with a certain subtlety and inscrutability. Rachel McAdams is a little out of her league but she still turns in one of her better performances to date as the idealistic lawyer Annabel Richter, while Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright and Daniel Bruhl are all reliably great as well.
A Most Wanted Man is not a spy movie made for today’s mainstream audiences, but it does a great job of capturing the ambiguity, paranoia and general untidiness that surrounds the war on terror. In that way, it feels both old-fashioned and modern at the same time. It does bear some similarity to Showtime’s popular TV series Homeland, minus the soap opera elements but with an added layer of gloom. As for Philip Seymour Hoffman, it is an undeniable reminder of his immense talent and a fitting yet frustrating finale for a man who went out at the peak of his career. — Sean