It is impossible to write this review without trying to contextualize what has, sadly, turned out to be one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film roles as Günther Bachmann, the head of a German anti-terrorist unit. In the book upon which this film is based, author John le Carré describes Bachmann thusly:
If there are people in the world for whom espionage was ever the only possible calling, Bachmann was such a person…. Now stuck in his mid forties, he was a scruffy, explosive mongrel of a man, stocky in the shoulders and frequently with ash on the lapels of his jacket until it was brushed off by the egregious Erna Frey, his long-standing workmate and assistant. He was driven, charismatic and compelling, a workaholic with a knockout smile. He had a mop of sandy hair that was too young for the crisscross wrinkles on his brow. Like an actor, he could blandish, charm or intimidate. He could be sweet-tongued and foul-mouthed in the same sentence.
Given that description and Hoffman’s undeniable talent, it is unsurprising that he wears Bachmann like a glove. Set in a post-9/11 world where the city of Hamburg has consistently remained on high-alert, Bachmann runs a small spy unit based in the country’s second largest city. The only thing Bachmann really does is spy. He does this exceedingly well, which is lucky for him because he is far less adept at maneuvering the political machine, leaving him generally disrespected and frequently overruled. Coupled with heaps of distrust against authorities both German and American, Bachmann is a pent up ball of chain-smoking spycraft, unwavering in his refusal to conform while still trying to do the right thing in a world that seemingly will not let him.
All of these aspects of his Bachmann’s personality and career come to a head when Bachmann discovers a possible terrorist act brewing when Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian with terrorist ties, is found to have recently smuggled himself into Hamburg. Meanwhile, Bachmann has been after another man, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), for years, believing that this Muslim academic is using his charitable efforts to fund terrorist acts. The film does not focus solely on Bachmann’s hunt of these two men, but also follows Issa, who is either a Muslim fundamentalist seeking to do bad things or simply a man seeking asylum to get away from a broken past. It is in this part of the film that we are introduced to Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) a young and possibly naïve asylum attorney who agrees to try to help Issa. The film moves back and forth between these two threads, while also bringing Willem Dafoe, as the head of a bank, and Robin Wright, as a CIA agent (and the lone American character in the film) into the mix, until all plot threads unite in a small town square.
The film is directed by Anton Corbijn, whose last movie was The American, and you may recall the last film based on a le Carré novel was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy so it should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that A Most Wanted Man is an incredibly slow burn. This is not a shoot-em-up, chase-em-down spy thriller; it’s a hard-boiled, slow-burning spy drama. Le Carré and Corbijn care very little about adrenaline, instead wanting to focus on the art of spying, the craft of the game and what it does to the people involved. Unfortunately, many of the plot elements and character beats are a little too by-the-numbers and, as a result, the film is not particularly compelling. To Corbijn’s (and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s) credit, it is a beautiful film, shot in lovely yellows and blues with framing shots that take full advantage of the German shooting locations. And though the accent work is a bit spotty, it’s great to see McAdams and Dafoe both in atypical roles, McAdams playing a woman who is not merely a foil from some love interest, and Dafoe getting to play a very nuanced and conflicted character.
But the story is ultimately Bachmann’s, as A Most Wanted Man is, at its heart, about watching the smartest guy in the room be his own worst enemy, a man trying to do what he thinks is right, only to be thwarted by his own obstinate brashness. And thus, the film is ultimately Hoffman’s. Look again at the last bit of le Carré’s description of Bachmann:
He had a mop of sandy hair that was too young for the crisscross wrinkles on his brow. Like an actor, he could blandish, charm or intimidate. He could be sweet-tongued and foul-mouthed in the same sentence.
And look at what Hoffman himself had to say about the role:
This movie is about a lot of things including, obviously, how countries deal with terrorism. But it’s also about a man who keeps doing the same thing and getting the same result. You get the feeling he can’t stop. He really feels like he’s trying to do the right thing and I think, actually, he is. But the world isn’t going along with his way of taking care of the bad guys of the planet.
I was just so taken with his tunnel vision. He just thought “it’s going to work this time and they’re going to see that I know, that I actually know.” That’s a hard way to live, to be someone who thinks, “if they could just see what I see, they’ll get it,” but they never let him get there and he keeps going there. He suffers.
Bachmann and Hoffman sound cut from the same cloth, spiritually if not as much literally, and so it should come as no surprise that Hoffman, as he often did, owns this role. The film may be a (very) slow burn, but you only notice it when Hoffman is not on screen. When he is, he is all that matters. Philip Seymour Hoffman has always been a strong presence, but it’s in a film like this that you really see how commanding he is. The tragedy in this film is Bachmann’s inability to adapt. But the tragedy of this film is that it brings the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman home. It makes it real.
Frankly, I thought less of the film upon my initial viewing than I do now, thinking back on it through a lens of loss. A Most Wanted Man is not likely to stand the test of time on its own. But it will stand as one of the final reminders of Hoffman’s virtuosity, and that alone makes it a worthy endeavor.
A Most Wanted Man had its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. No release date has been set yet.