When Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away suddenly last spring, it felt like a major talent was being struck down and ripped away from us in his prime. If anyone needed any more proof of that, his last starring role is a fitting tribute, because it’s honestly one of the best performances of his career. And what a career it had been, one that included great character turns in films like Capote, The Master, The Savages, Doubt, Almost Famous and countless others.
You can go ahead and add Anton Corbijn’s tightly wound spy thriller A Most Wanted Man to the list, because Hoffman brings his special brand of world weary cynicism and cold, professional skillset (not to mention an impeccable German accent) to the role of German intelligence agent, Gunther Bachman, who leads a team that tracks down terrorists in Hamburg, one of the leading cities for jihadists en route to other countries. This is a lean, tightly plotted, highly procedural tale of espionage, based on the 2008 novel by John le Carre, who also wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carre can always be counted on to weave meaty and complicated spy thrillers juggling many different themes, and this one is no different, but set in the present day, which ties it to the ongoing efforts of international spy agencies to combat Islamic terrorism.
That post 9/11 setting (as the prologue describes for us) gives this movie a brutally realistic atmosphere infused with hardworn intelligence officers, seeking to get the job done through any means possible. Bachman is no idealist, and is willing to step outside the bounds of the constitution to complete his task, but he’s been thwarted before from outside interference from the Americans and German security officials, who are threatening to do so again in his current operation. The complicated plot reveals itself meticulously, as we first see Gunther and his team at work tracking a Russian suspect named Issa Karpov into the city, then recruiting assets from the various players he comes in contact with- first, a banker played by Willem Dafoe, then an immigration and civil liberties lawyer played by Rachel McAdams (not as successful with the accent). Through these interactions, we find out Gunther’s ultimate goal, which involves turning Issa’s contacts into allies and allowing, even manipulating him, into going through with his intended financial transaction in order to follow the money, which will eventually lead them to an even bigger target.
It’s tough, painstaking work, and we see in this movie that most espionage activities encompass long, tedious hours of listening and waiting, sometimes following, but always more waiting. Corbijn takes us into the environment of spies, who mostly mill around in storage rooms and back offices with low lighting, Hoffman embodying the exhausting nature of his job with every subtle expression that crosses his face. He rarely lets us in on his thinking, and this is a movie entirely focused on the plot, yet because of Hoffman, we are drawn in to his character, so much so that the final act of the film has an absolutely devastating impact, one that will stay with you long after the credits roll. It leaves you with a feeling of hollow cynicism, after you already assumed that Gunther was a man who couldn’t possibly be made any more cynical. Even the biggest skeptics among us are capable of being duped, and there are no promises and no one in the intelligence world whose word is to be trusted.
This is a film that can run a bit dry at times, and it challenges you to keep up with the plot, but if you do you are vastly rewarded in the end, and left with an emotional and devastating gut punch that hits you stronger than anything in any other film I’ve seen this year. For that it’s well worth your time.