Slow-paced, semi-static, and simmering, as washed-out as its hero is burnt-out, A Most Wanted Man is a contemporary tale of terrorism and patient collection of information; a film of gathering interest rather than throttling suspense; and an unglamorous depiction of governmental grunt work. Crackling with a jigsaw-puzzle intelligence, it’s a crackerjack thriller, claustrophobic, brooding, and unbearably tense.
Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master), a German agent, leads a team which seeks to develop intelligence from the local Muslim community. When Issa Karpov, a refugee from Chechnya, enters Hamburg illegally, he contacts an immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris) and seeks to obtain a large inheritance from Tommy Brue, a banker whose father laundered money for Karpov’s father. Karpov’s connection to philanthropist and terrorist financier Dr. Abdullah Ershadi draws the attention of American diplomatic attaché Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) constructs a stifling world of shadowy surveillance and intersecting interests, building on John Le Carré’s sense of moral and emotional exhaustion. Corbijn keeps the intrigue uncluttered, guided by Andrew Bovell’s economical adapted screenplay.
In le Carré-land, one’s own moral certainties are quickly stood on their head, and the rational approach faces an uphill battle against the philistines who run the show. That predictably weary attitude is both the best – as embodied in Hoffman’s performance – and worst – in its weary predictability – thing about A Most Wanted Man. The film is not in the same class as The Constant Gardener or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; still, the narrative crossroads will remain on your mind long after you’ve left the theater.
It’s difficult to separate A Most Wanted Man from its breathtakingly nuanced central performance, to watch the film without seeing it primarily as affirmation of Hoffman’s singular gifts. It allows Hoffman to go out swinging, epitomizing his consummate talent. Even the title is a sad epitaph. Finely etched, Hoffman shines in a role that demands not showmanship, but a complexity and contradiction that can be rendered only through the kind of dull character details that he excelled in, accumulating them from the inside out. He doesn’t get a lot of flashy, awards-show-clip moments, but he underplays and reveals volumes with the slightest of reactions and inflections.
Despite its faults, it’s hard not to want A Most Wanted Man to go on forever, to spend time in the company of one of the greatest actors of any generation. Drinking, smoking, grimacing, and muttering in a thick German accent, Hoffman owns Bachmann, singlehandedly goosing the muted post-9/11 procedural through its slower patches. Bloated and flushed, he does not look well, yet whatever infirmities he was fighting are a part of the performance. Hoffman seems to have the whole film under lock and key, padding around cagily, as if prowling the perimeter to prevent an imminent burglary. He scales his performance to Olympian heights, elevating his collaborators.
Dilapidated and mournful, A Most Wanted Man is a complex espionage thriller, superbly told, with time to soak in its mysteries, and a believable reflection of how these fictional events might well play out in the real world. While the final act does not stun, it features some trademark Corbijn ease and a terrifying Hoffman bellowing expletives at the sky – a howling that brings shivers – not bad for just another spy film. With it, the career of an acting giant comes crashing to a close, a crushing loss on the level of Marlon Brando, a loss from which cinema may never recover.