More than a fitting swan song for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man is a crackling spy thriller with a lot on its mind and no easy answers.

Our goal…is to make the world a safer place. Isn’t that enough?


Any conversation about this latest John le Carré adaptation begins and ends with the magnificent Hoffman, but not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. In fact, watching his performance in A Most Wanted Man — his final lead role, though he will still appear in the final two Hunger Games installments — made me upset about his tragic, senseless death all over again.

Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, the chain-smoking, weary chief of Germany’s (ahem) extra-legal intelligence agency in Hamburg. He paces on balconies and rooftops as his team moves in and out of the shadows, snuffing out security threats before they metastasize; as he puts it, getting their hands dirty so others don’t have to. Yet to many, his tactics don’t go far enough. Government officials are breathing down his neck for results, America is waving its big stick, and Bachmann is haunted by a recent failure in which his network of contacts imploded and people who trusted him died — a failure that got him sent here, to Hamburg. “As punishment?” he is asked. “Depends on how you feel about Hamburg.”

But to him (and, it seems, him alone), patience is the name of the game: watching, waiting, collecting assets and then turning them around to seek out bigger targets. “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda; a barracuda to catch a shark,” he says. One such barracuda arrives in the form of Issa Karpov (Grigorly Dobrygin), a Muslim, Russian-Chechen refugee who has illegally entered Germany to, it is said, claim a large inheritance of dirty money. Is he a terrorist? Did someone send him here? Where some would rush in, grab Issa, and grill him for secrets, Bachmann observes restlessly, plotting, asking for yet another cup of black coffee each time he enters a room, his intentions never fully clear to the audience.

Hoffman showed throughout his career a gift for playing downtrodden men, beaten down by the world but soldiering on anyway. And he provides Günther Bachmann that same dignity — attempting to make the right choices while navigating untrustworthy relationships, both foreign and domestic. He “collects” an idealistic young lawyer (Rachel McAdams, whose German accent is put to shame by Hoffman’s) and a slippery banker (Willem Dafoe, great as always) for his scheme, while his CIA contact (Robin Wright, still in total Ice Queen mode) circles like a vulture, on no one’s side but her own.

If this doesn’t sound like your typical spy thriller, that’s because it isn’t. A Most Wanted Man is a cerebral slow burn, never giving the audience more information than necessary (not even a chyron) and engaging through the performances and screw-tightening tension, not action. I don’t believe a single gun is ever fired. The competent cinematography from Benoit Delhomme shows us every side of Hamburg, from greasy diners and bars to a gorgeous city park in the autumn. Corbijn’s direction is solid if not specifically memorable — no flair, no fuss, no distractions. Therefore, the lion’s share of the credit goes deservedly to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gives a master class in restraint; we’re drawn in by his physicality, the way he walks, the way he breathes. It’s a full, three-dimensional performance, elevating what would otherwise be a B-level enterprise with his gravitas and grace.

Yet even minor le Carré is still intelligent, thought-provoking writing, and Andrew Bovell’s screenplay captures the novel’s Big Ideas without losing its confidence or commitment to realism. One moment later on — where the barracuda finally meets the shark — is where the film turns from simply a showcase for Hoffman to something more profound, drawing a genuine emotional response out of me regarding two second-billed characters that, I had thought, were simply a means to an end. But it’s a complex web of plotting and motivations, with everyone out to follow their own agenda — national, professional, personal. And when Hoffman’s dam finally bursts in the final reels, illustrating both his emotional investment and the fickleness of conscience, it’s devastating.

In the end, we’re forced to consider the increasingly sectarian state of affairs abroad, how much responsibility we bear ourselves, and whether anything can be done to save it. Günther may be the “hero,” but he’s just a man, as helpless against the winds of politics and money as Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy‘s George Smiley, or Bunny Colvin from The Wire, or anyone else who has taken the path of empathic moderation and gotten burned for it. He knows his altruism is a liability, but he can’t turn it off. And as embodied by Hoffman, with a hangdog expression and the light in his eyes fading day by day, he is the avatar for the 21st century pragmatists, those who have given up so much to achieve so little. Thankfully, Hoffman himself had achieved so much more.

Grade: A-

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