Directed by: Anton Corbijn.
Written by: Andrew Bovell based on the novel by John le Carré.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Günther Bachmann), Rachel McAdams (Annabel Richter), Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan), Willem Dafoe (Tommy Brue), Nina Hoss (Irna Frey), Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov), Homayoun Ershadi (Abdullah), Mehdi Dehbi (Jamal), Daniel Brühl (Maximilian), Vicky Krieps (Niki), Kostja Ullmann (Rasheed), Derya Alabora (Leyla Oktay), Tamer Yigit (Melik Oktay).
John LeCarre wrote some of the best spy novels of the Cold War era – and he has continued to write great spy novel about the post 9/11 world. His novel, A Most Wanted Man, is set in Hamburg in the mid-2000s where everyone is paranoid. Hamburg, after all, was where the lead 9/11 hijacker planed the attack – and no one wants to let them happen again. A mysterious stranger – Issa Karpov – from Chechnya arrives, illegally, and sets off a series of inter-agency and international conflict between different intelligence groups, all of whom are essentially in a pissing contest to see who can get Issa – and what to do with him when they do. Anton Corbijn’s wonderful screen version keeps the story mostly intact – but switches the emphasis a little, so now the central character is Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final, non-Hunger Games role). In many ways, he stands in for all of German intelligence – he messed up in Beirut, and as a result has been relegated back to a desk in Hamburg – where he has to make sure he doesn’t screw up again. Hoffman plays Bachmann with a constant hunch – as if he really does have the weight of the world on his shoulders – and to Bachmann’s mind, he does. Everyone else doesn’t know what to do – he trusts no one but his own team, who operates mainly in the shadows, not overly concerned with the legality of what they are doing. Everyone else simply wants to arrest Issa and be done with it. But Bachmann wants to see why he’s in Hamburg. “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark” he tells a room full of people late in the movie. He sees Issa as a minnow – and the well regarded Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) – a businessman, who also helps out many Muslim charities – and yet every time he transfers money to them, some goes missing. Bachmann doesn’t know how the shark is yet – but he wants to find out.
Like most LeCarre stories, A Most Wanted Man exists in a moral grey zone – no one in the story is “innocent” and there are no real good guys and bad guys. Everyone is pursuing their own objectives throughout the movie – more interested in protecting their own ass than anything else. As Bachmann watches Issa, he begins to draw in other informants that he needs – banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) – who Issa needs to contact because his father made a deal with Brue’s father, lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) – a “social worker for terrorists” – who becomes the only person Issa will trust. The “Americans” are represented by Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) – who tries, perhaps a little too hard, to convince Bachmann that he can trust her.
Unusual for a spy story – even a LeCarre one – there are no action sequences to speak of in A Most Wanted – no car chases or shootouts, no ticking time bombs defused at the last second, or exploding city blocks. The stakes in A Most Wanted Man are relatively low-key – Bachmann wants to catch Abdullah funneling some money to a shipping company in Greece, which would prove that he is in some way associated with terrorism (or so he thinks). Issa, who sets everything into motion, is really more a cypher than a character in the movie – he can represent whatever you want him to be – either the scary Muslim, potential terrorist, or the oppressed young man, who has suffered torture and imprisonment – and wants to do one good thing. The movie never really tells you which one Issa is – and I think that’s by design. It’s somewhat more thrilling this way. Who is this Issa?
Appropriately for the movie, the visual look Corbijn establishes in the movie is largely grey and colorless (when he does use bold colors, they stand out). Following the excellent Control (2007) – shot in beautiful black and white – and the underrated The American (2010) – which like A Most Wanted Man is a genre film, but played more realistically then most – it helps to establish Conbijn as an intelligent director – more interested in plot and character than a fast movie story. A Most Wanted Man really is more of a character study than anything else – of Hoffman’s Bachmann, and the late actor was more than up to the challenge. He speaks in German accented English, but he never seems out of place, even when talking to natural German speakers like Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl (both are great actors – both are underutilized here, especially Bruhl). He chain smokes and drinks too much – is well aware of how everyone sees him – and doesn’t really care. Much of Hoffman’s performance here is subtle – he’s playing a man who doesn’t give away any information without getting something in return. It’s a great performance by Hoffman – and confirms, one last time, that he may well have been the best actor of his generation.
A Most Wanted Man is a spy thriller – and a good one – but it’s much more than that. The final moments in the film are devastating – some may not like it, but I loved the way Hoffman plays the scene – raging followed by extended period of quiet. Overall, I have enjoyed many of the blockbusters of the summer of 2014 – but it’s still refreshing to see a perfectly executed genre film – that features no guns, no explosions, not action, and one that is even more thrilling. So many blockbusters have the fate of the entire world (or galaxy) hang in the balance – but the lower stakes of A Most Wanted Man is much more thrilling to me – much more human.