By: Daniel Reynolds
When the news broke earlier this year that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent drug overdose, it came as a shock. This wasn’t Heath Ledger, a troubled young man burning out brightly while in the midst of his most challenging role. This was the veteran Hoffman, always seen as the consummate professional. He exuded a certain quality, something both relatable and sad. He played villains and funny men in his movies but the best work came when he played losers, angry outsiders, and those ordinary people found at the edges of everyday life. Here now I think of his roles in Happiness, Boogie Nights, Owning Mahowny, The Master and more. This was the legacy he created. And this is where we enshrine his penultimate creation: spymaster Gunter Bachmann in Anton Corbijn‘s A Most Wanted Man.
Based on a book from John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man begins when a gaunt, bearded Chechen man washes ashore in Hamburg, Germany. The man, Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), seeks refuge amongst the Muslim community and is sent to meet a strident young lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) for assistance. He’s the most wanted man in question, as is gradually revealed by a plot that involves a vast sum of money, a corrupt Russian general, and the ever present fear that terrorism presents in our modern society. So, while a Muslim family protects Issa and Annabel wants to help him, the intelligence community moves in.
Enter Gunter. He’s on the trail of a high profile financier, Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who fronts charities while also, as Gunter suspects, funding terrorism groups. Gunter sees Abdullah as a barracuda, a mid-level man hooked by using minnows, who in turn can be used to catch the sharks of international terrorism. To that end, Gunter works with a small, off-the-books team (staffed by Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl) within German intelligence to lure assets he can then use to ensnare these larger targets. It’s as difficult as it sounds, made more challenging by the competitive and untrustworthy nature of the larger intelligence community. Here’s where things get complicated in that usual le Carré fashion. Gunter’s placement in Hamburg is as a result of some vague allusions to his previous role in Beirut (which is always movie shorthand for fuckup). He wants to do the right thing, even if he has to put some good people in compromising positions to do it. There is very little gun play or violence in the film, despite it being classified as a thriller, but there is tension. What Corbijn (along with writer Andrew Bovell, who adapted the le Carré novel) is concerned with is the trusting scaffold men like Gunter need to construct in order to get any meaningful intelligence work done at all.
So, while Gunter helms the ship, the audience is left to swim adrift with poor Issa and Annabel as they try to navigate in the dark. For her part, McAdams brings a believable naivety and vibrancy to the role. Her German accent hangs tough, but the feelings we’re supposed to believe are developing between her and Issa never quite rise above the moral murk. And, quite bluntly, that’s on Dobrygin, who despite being given the titular role, never manages to make us care much for Issa’s stuck-between-worlds plight. I imagine the source material provides a much more nuanced characterization; here, Issa is mainly made to look forlorn. The work Annabel and Issa do first on the run from, and then with Gunter, is also aided by a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Wisely, Dafoe plays Brue with an exacting middle manager tone. He’ll handle any transactions and do what is asked of him, provided it gets him home at the end of the day. It was actually refreshing to see Dafoe, these days a garish presence, in such a straight ahead role. And finally, Robin Wright, channelling the remnants of her House of Cards performance, is on hand as American intelligence official Martha Sullivan. She smiles far too much like a shark. Bovell’s script gives them, and others, all something well-defined to do at the very least.
Still, when the film works, it’s because of Hoffman. His Gunter is a hoarse, wheezing, weight of a man. It’s hard to picture him working undercover, and yet we believe he can convince desperate figures to do his bidding while also being able to condescend to a room full of high powered governmental figures. Hoffman’s hulking presence bears down on the role, bringing with it a heaviness and overriding sense of despair. Gunter believes in his work – he’s dedicated his life to it – but he knows that he’ll have to combat more than the terrorists on the other side of the fence. In a film shot with minimal flair, Hoffman expertly brings this notion to life.
On the other side of the camera is Corbijn, now on his third feature, who once again calmly works over some complicated ground. For A Most Wanted Man he loses the moody black-and-white of his debut feature Control, and the exacting sparseness of The American, to allow the actors room. His film doesn’t strive for any artifice, it plays the action straight and the locales as unremarkable. (Except the office exteriors; apparently every intelligence office must be an architectural paean.) The Hamburg we see is both beautiful and boring.
Unlike the last le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man is surprisingly straight forward. I came away from the film in belief of its message, but it can’t quite shake the label of inessential. Fighting terrorism is a complicated business; the results of that fight – even in victory – sometimes come with a high cost. This feels self-evident. But we, like Gunter, want to believe that a war against terror can actually be won no matter how endless it seems. That’s the final heartbreaking notion of A Most Wanted Man, a feeling hard to separate from the tragedy around the movie: we’ll never see Hoffman pull together another fabulous character and performance like this again. Both the film and his life remain hidden and incomplete. Nobody gets what they want.