The worlds of cinema and the stage lost one of their hardest-working, most talented and accomplished character actors this past winter when Philip Seymour Hoffman succumbed to a drug overdose. Hoffman wasn’t blessed with matinée-idol good looks, but he counted his frumpy, dumpy appearance as an asset when it came to being able to undertake a broad range of interesting roles. He was utterly fearless before the cameras or in front of an audience, exposing himself to pity or ridicule as he portrayed mainly creeps and losers, bullies and pornographers, criminals and hucksters, people with something to hide, people who struggled and often did not prevail – and made us believe in them.
Thus, it seems fitting that the great thespian’s last starring role was in a movie whose visual aesthetic keeps returning to the idea of transparency or the lack thereof: Anton Corbijn’s interpretation of the John le Carré espionage novel A Most Wanted Man. Before he became known as a maker of stylish music videos, the Dutch director cut his teeth doing still photography, and that DNA leaves its marks all over this tense, thoughtful, unglamorous spy thriller. As the characters dance their high-stakes pavanne through the glum, seedy streets of the German city of Hamburg, any window, mirror or shiny surface becomes an excuse to have an image blur or dissolve into glare. Two people meeting secretly in an apartment undergoing renovation struggle to connect through translucent hanging plastic tarps; a character is held prisoner in a room built from glass blocks. It all feels at times like one of those dreams where you’re trying your hardest to move forward, but it’s like walking underwater.
That’s probably what Günther Bachmann’s job is starting to feel like by the time we meet him at the outset of A Most Wanted Man. After a more prestigious gig running a German government intelligence unit in Beirut falls apart and most of his team members are killed due to a CIA flub, the veteran spy portrayed by Hoffman gets demoted to a clandestine squad whose job is to keep a low profile while doing things that aren’t technically legal. They’re assigned to Hamburg because that’s where Mohammed Atta and company organized the 9/11 plot, and the German government is embarrassed that it didn’t catch them. Bachmann and his crew are supposed to make sure, whatever it takes, that terrorists don’t continue to operate in that town, which is a crossroads for all sorts of international schemers because it’s a busy shipping port.
Bachmann is under pressure from his bosses to find hard evidence that an eminent Muslim philanthropist named Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) is siphoning off a portion of the donations to his charities to fund weapons for terrorists. It’s a long game that he’s playing, and Bachmann’s modus is to worm his way into suspects’ inner circles and gain their trust very gradually. He’s a thinker and a planner, a man of nearly infinite patience, not an action hero. So when a young half-Russian, half-Chechen drifter with a Muslim prayer rug, a long incarceration record and no passport starts showing up on security cameras around town, the higher-ups lean on Bachmann and his highly skilled and loyal team of young operatives to reel him in before the CIA starts sniffing around.
Bachmann has other ideas. He has his team stake out the mysterious stranger, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has been trying to make contact with a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). They quickly discover that Karpov is the illegitimate son and sole heir of a recently deceased Russian mobster, and that a very large sum of money is awaiting him in Brue’s vaults. What he intends to do with it is anybody’s guess, and the higher-ups want him taken out of circulation before he passes the funds along to some terrorist cell. But Bachmann sees Karpov as the potential bait in his plan to catch the bigger fish, Dr. Abdullah.
Into this setup walk a couple of wildcards: Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter, a human rights lawyer who wants to protect Karpov from extradition back to one of the countries where he has already undergone torture; and Robin Wright as CIA agent Martha Sullivan, with whom Bachmann must play cat-and-mouse to buy himself a little more time. The whole cast is stellar, even the minor characters, with Nina Hoss completing the triumvirate of strong, interesting female characters as Bachmann’s chief deputy Erna Frey. Dafoe does a particularly fine turnaround as the smug, in-control bank executive with a dicey past who loses his cool as he’s blackmailed into serving as the espionage team’s stalking horse.
This being a le Carré story, it’s an espionage procedural, not a James Bond movie. There are lots of eye-opening lessons in A Most Wanted Man on how to conduct meticulous research, play good cop/bad cop or do a bit of metaphorical arm-twisting, but no guns a-blazing or car chases (though there are quite a few listening gadgets). Moviegoers who need that sort of adrenaline rush in their spy flicks would be well-advised to look elsewhere. Those who relish the cerebral chess game of watching a master operative painstakingly manipulate his quarry into a trap will be awed by Hoffman’s low-key delivery of this world-weary character who has seen it all, is great at what he does but still occasionally doesn’t see the forest for the trees in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world where transparency is a rare and deceptive commodity.
It’s a role worthy to cap a stunning career. We’ll miss you, Phil.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.