A Most Wanted Man
Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Written by: Andrew Bovell (screenplay), John le Carré (novel)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright
Though this John le Carré adaptation switches between being a generic spy caper and a thrilling one, it was a great moviegoing experience for me simply because it was the last new movie I’ll ever see with Philip Seymour Hoffman in a leading role. Yes, he’ll return as a supporting player in the final Hunger Games installment(s), and his debut in the last movie was filled with promise; but this is his last time at center stage, and I’m glad (but not surprised) that he knocks it out of the park.
A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn, is several steps behind the flashes of mastery in Tomas Alfredson’s take on le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it even copies many of the visual elements used in that movie. There are brightly colored rooms filled with drab spies speaking cryptically, and windowless, deglamorized operation hubs that felt lifted from the world of Alfredson’s film. Though both movies benefit greatly from fantastic central performances, A Most Wanted Man’s winding, post-9/11 paranoia narrative doesn’t establish character nearly as well.
Set in Hamburg, Germany, A Most Wanted Man largely focuses on Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), a spy invisibly fighting the War on Terror on the front lines. His methods are in stark contrast to the very visible forces of the U.S. and his own country. He wants a peaceful resolution with no “enhanced interrogation,” and he thankfully name drops places like Guantanamo as though they’re disturbing defeats rather than necessary evils.
The movie’s other central character is much quieter and, despite his resourcefulness, much more powerless. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is an illegal Chechen immigrant whose cardinal sins in Europe are being Islamic and coming to the city “at the heart” of the 9/11 attacks. Like many of the other characters, Issa remains a cypher. His father was a wealthy Russian crime lord and he comes to a Hamburg bank so he donate all of the ill-gotten earnings to a man he believes will give the money to worthy Islamic charities.
The European and American spies use this to their advantage. As Günther puts it, Issa becomes a minnow to catch a baracuda. That baracuda is a prominent Muslim figure (Homayoun Ershadi) who they attempt to catch using the money for terrorist groups. The official German agency wants to throw black hoods over their faces and whisk them both away, but an American spy (Robin Wright) tries to give Hoffman and his agents enough time to plot. (Spoilers ahead)
Also mixed in with this bunch is a young non-profit lawyer played by Rachel McAdams. Günther calls her a “social worker for terrorists” while attempting to convince her that he’s trying to help Issa. Andrew Bovell’s script revels in drawing and shifting the lines of audience likability between its government players, but this is not a privilege it affords Issa or any of the other Islamic characters being targeted by them.
While this is a world where humanity as a whole comes at the expense of a vast, unbeatable bureaucratic machine, it often fails to elevate the devastating drama at its center because this. Hoffman’s volcanic performance breaks through at times, and the ending demolishes any idealism that Günther may have falsely instilled in its audience. Its mater-of-fact hopelessness shows the pain and discrimination endured by many Muslims after 9/11, though they hardly exist in the movie other than to illustrate this point.
Robin Wright’s American spy gives a glare in this final scene that silently says “Forget it Günther, it’s Hamburg.” The do-gooders’ attempts to prevent Issa from falling between the cracks are futile, and Günther’s scheming suddenly becomes Sisyphean. The way Hoffman smashes against his car and shouts expletives as Issa and the scholar are hauled away in black SUVs suggests this is yet another defeat for him, a character who the movies have conditioned us to think will win. Unlike the people he was trying to save, he at least gets to park his car, walk away and fail again some day.