A Most Wanted Man Review: The Constant Thespian

As an author, John le Carré (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) has deftly charted numerous tales of international intrigue and how patient surveillance can uncover the secrets in the shadows. With his first post-9/11 film adaptation, A Most Wanted Man, le Carré appears to have chased those shadows to the point of exhaustion, his hands on his knees, his lungs heaving, weary to go on. I mean that as a compliment. There’s unease in a fractured globe.

While his other film adaptations (the most prominent, listed above) might be more taut in suspense and exhilarating in location and period costuming, A Most Wanted Man is the most devastating. And only partially because it features on of the best performances from one of our most impressive performers who died too soon, Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is also devastating because le Carré (and director Anton Corbjin, Control, The American) pits a long-game intelligence gathering approach versus a quicker, more vengeful (and less humane) approach.  This magnificent thriller is thrilling not just for one of Hoffman’s final (and, again, best) performances, but also for how Corbjin uses Hoffman as a thespian bomb that will explode at the narrative meeting points of singular national interests that’s pitted against the patience that is required for increased global balance. 

As Günther Bachmann, a German spy who should be called “a most moral man,” Hoffman’s performance also requires patience. But by the end, what an incendiary totem of acting excellence we receive. For one, it’s difficult to see Günther’s morality in the beginning. Günther is stacking his dominoes — a crooked banker (Willem Dafoe), a bleeding-heart human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and an American CIA operative (Robin Wright) who owes him for meddling in a previous web he’d woven — but we’re not sure what train he is attempting to play. That we care on the outset is due to Hoffman, that we still care by the end is because Günther appears to be masterminding a careful construction of morality in an increasingly immoral trade: surveillance. 

So who is this most wanted man? In terms of dominoes, he’s a double blank. He has an extremely high value (a massive inheritance from a warmonger father) who’s attempting to rid himself of that value entirely and start anew with nothing (except his rigorous faith, Islam, itself a rebellion against his father). He’s Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechan who’s arrived in Hamburg with a beard, a letter to a banker and torturous scars on his body from an extended (and illegal) holding in a Russian jail. In the post-9/11 West, all arrivals with beards and a Quran call for instant surveillance. And Bachman wants to use the immense international interest in this man to step-up an operation he’s been monitoring for years.

If there’s a fault in A Most Wanted Man it’s a clunky section involving Annabel (McAdams) and Issa in a series of adult trust-building scenarios. And neither McAdams nor Hoffman completely convince with their accents. But she can otherwise play an icy optimist and he could play anything he damn well pleased.

What makes A Most Wanted Man more interesting than a majority of spy thrillers is that each individual is actually trying to make the world safer. The enemy isn’t evident. Annabel attempts to provide documents to grant Issa asylum. Both Tommy (Dafoe) and Issa are attempting to wipe their slates clean of their father’s blood. Along with Günther and his team of operatives (Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss, magnificent German actors who, here, are given minimal German roles, but add authenticity), they comprise the foot soldiers. But the board will always be set and played by the superiors and their motives are secretive beyond even the ending of the film. 

What never has been a secret is that the film community lost a great one in Hoffman. And far too soon. A Most Wanted Man has such a marvelous ending, but it is marvelous simply because of Hoffman’s ability to realistically … let it go. And Corbijn smartly follows that moment for as long as possible. As a thespian, Philip Seymour Hoffman was always, a most wanted man.

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.


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