Film review: A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s curtain call

Jul 29, 2014 at 5:25 pm

A Most Wanted Man | B

Over the course of his career,
author John le Carré endeavored to simultaneously redefine and subvert the spy thriller, removing the tidy, romantic, pulse-pounding plots of pulp novels and replacing them with world-weary, ambiguously motivated, and ethically murky storylines that reflected the corrupt nature of real-world politics, corporatism, and security. His spies were hardly the rugged masters of combat portrayed in the Bourne movies. Instead, they were defeated, yet decent middle-aged men who loathed the work they did, yet were committed to doing it well.

Director Anton Corbijn (The American, Control) employs dense plotting, rigorous formalism, and opaque characters to cinematically instill le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man with those same ennui-filled sensibilities. A music-video veteran, Corbijn seems less interested in thrilling set pieces and heightened drama, and more interested in forcing us to watch distrustful people watch one another. Think of it as a meta commentary on the weary paranoia and fear that leads both the audience and the movie’s bureaucratic spies to assume the very worst in people. Even if nothing much happens, there is always the sense that something terrible could.

That’s the reality that rumpled, poker-faced Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) bears upon his slouching shoulders. The disheveled leader of a German counterterrorism squad stationed in Hamburg, he’s the kind of jaded, unassuming genius le Carré specializes in, a spy that his superiors dislike because they distrust both his methods and his loyalties. Instead of indiscriminate snatch-and-grabs, Bachmann prefers to make sure his targets are actually guilty, and is often willing to risk letting little fish go in order to reel in bigger prey.

When a Chechen refugee named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) washes up in Hamburg seeking asylum, alarm bells go off inside Bachmann’s agency. The young, devout Muslim is seeking to claim a hefty bank account left for him by his father, a deceased Russian gangster. Is the money earmarked for jihadists operating in Germany or something less nefarious? And even if Issa’s intentions are pure, could his money be used to lure a suspected Islamic academic into incriminating himself?

For idealistic human-rights lawyer Annabel Richter (an unconvincing Rachel McAdams), Issa is a wounded man fleeing the horrors of his past. For Bachmann’s superiors, Issa is ticking time bomb, ready to inflict new horrors on their country. For crooked banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), the young Muslim has unwittingly made him a pawn in Bachmann’s schemes to discover the truth. And for inscrutable CIA liaison Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), the jury is still out. As patience wears thin and loyalties divide, Bachmann does his damnedest to get to the truth, embarking on an elaborate game of human chess. 

A Most Wanted Man is the kind of thriller that James Bond audiences will hate and art-house devotees might love. It requires forbearance, a surrender to Corbijn’s methodical pace and slow reveal of seemingly unknowable men. And while it boasts little in the way of physical action (the second act drags at times) the film still manages to create a palpable tension because it so carefully establishes the stakes at hand. 

As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swan song as a leading man, A Most Wanted Man is a fitting showcase for his tousled talents … and sad epitaph of a title as Hollywood loses one of its most talented character actors. Gunther is a broken-down government servant who realizes that his once-noble mission is actually an exercise in knee-jerk reprisals and long-held grudges. And yet he hopes to outwit the system that taught him how to deceive. It’s a sly and carefully measured performance that takes two hours to finally explode into cathartic rage and frustration, making clear that the current state of our security-obsessed world has left us all powerless, howling at injustices that will never be answered. 

A Most Wanted Man in in theaters now. It’s rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.