A perfect performance is not what qualifies great acting, it’s an impassioned one.
The laid out intensity and confident determination of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s absorbing performance in A Most Wanted Man is notable because with every scene his passion kicks you in the gut and simmers off the screen. The film marks one of Hoffman’s final performances before his untimely death.
Hoffman brings a restrained German accent and palpable weariness to his role as Günther Bachmann, a shrewd, calculating and weathered Chief of Anti-Terrorism of a Hamburg underground, secret intelligence organization. Who they are and what they do is slowly revealed. This independent organization operates by preventing terrorist security threats in a way they see fit and Bachmann is the man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders making the hard decisions.
For the chameleon who won an Oscar for his haunting portrayal of Truman Capote (Capote), Hoffman’s riveting performance in A Most Wanted Man is a memorable one and ranks as one of Hoffman’s all-time best. It’s his humanity. The instinctive, quiet depth and the specificity in the fullness of his choices to inhabit the soul of the Bachmann character are what make Phillip Seymour Hoffman so convincing.
The Director, Anton Corbijn (Control), is a photographer-turned-filmmaker whose artistic eye for visual composition and elegant, considered storytelling are reflected in the look and the many different viewpoints from the characters. The Dutch-British Director’s first success with the thriller genre was with George Clooney and The American.
With A Most Wanted Man, Corbijn has directed a cerebral tale of intrigue, politics and rivalry that succeed as a dense, slow burn thriller that is an adaptation of John LaCarre’s 2008 novel of the same name, and scripted by Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell (Lantana).
There’s a lot going on in this film. While not for everyone, the unwinding mystery is an intriguing journey worth your time and money to discover the plot twists and turns on your own.
With a stellar international cast and a painstaking story that emphasize an intricate web of facts, alliances, and moody complexity, A Most Wanted Man is a classic spy thriller in the vein of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and more recently, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In other words, this is a thinking man’s thriller. There are no high speed chases, there’s not any shoot ’em up action gun battle or even a death that we see. The realism of Le Carre’s writing is that of dark government assets and clandestine spy games – and haunting authenticity. The entertainment value is the seductive chase for justice over terrorism and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
In the German port city of Hamburg, intelligence operatives stay on high alert more that a decade after Sept 11. When a tortured Chechen – Russian Muslim (Issa Karpov) illegally immigrates to Hamburg, Germany to claim his father’s ill gotten fortune and hides out in the Islamic community, both German and U.S. security agencies take a close interest. (Germany is trying to overcome its reputation as a hot bed of terrorist activity since the planned U.S. attacks of bomber Mohammed Atta and his terrorist collaborators.)
Is the target, Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin), an oppressed victim or an ill minded extremist? Can Bachman keep a lid on the situation before the CIA and allies take over?
The situation gets murky when a bicycle-riding, civil rights advocate (Rachel McAdams) becomes involved with Issa’s cause may be crossing the line as an accomplice, and a local banker (Willem Dafoe) with questionable motives is hired to help this stateless man gain access to his wealthy inheritance. Tension mounts and the stakes rise to establish this most wanted man’s true identity and his intention as the international war on terror forges ahead.
The emotional texture Rachel McAdams (Annabal) delivers as a lawyer/ advocate surprises in her against type casting, but as the heart and soul of the story she impresses all the same. It was a risky casting choice that pays off. Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan) is an authoritative and icy manipulator in the thick of it all as the astute CIA operative with her own agenda. (Her raven hair is harsh and frightening.) German stars Nina Hoss (Edna Frey) and Daniel Brühl (Maximilian) play integral plot roles in A Most Wanted Man but both are sadly underused.
Herbert Groenemeyer’s score is subtle and nuanced like the drama at hand. Shot on locations in Hamburg and Berlin, Benoit Delhomme’s (The Scent of Green Papaya) knowing cinematography is a gritty authentic look to these urban cities that extends a powerful backdrop of real world immediacy.
The political, analytical procedural is skillfully executed but the momentum in A Most Wanted Man is measured and the character development and entertainment value is limited. The electricity is Hoffman’s embodiment of the role and the gritty, realism of the stifling spy game – if strategy and mental chess qualify as explosive action for you.
In a polarized, black and white world of post-911, the cynicism that permeates the film strips the glamor of intelligence gathering, and Bachmann, the hard worn spy with a past, fights a tenuous battle against the West’s enemies and a losing war with his own punitive, so-called allies.
The reality of A Most Wanted Man is that no one is all good or fully evil. They’re all flawed, even though each thinks he or she is doing the right thing. The fascinating back and forth interplay of moral ambiguities could well reflect a malleable shift and reexamination of one’s own sympathies.
It’s all a matter of perspective – not a matter of right or wrong – but what is.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Rated R for language
A Most Wanted Man Website.
Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele is a new column that embraces the landscape of film, filmmakers, and film festivals. This will be a canvas where film reviews, and in-depth interviews into the filmmaking process will be shared, and the world of cinephiles will be celebrated. A dedicated space to cinema outside the mainstream, the emphasis of Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele will be foreign cinema, independent films, documentaries and the filmmakers who make them.