A haggard and ragged man crawls out of the river running through Hamburg, Germany. He makes contact with members of the Islamic community, opening the door to the question: Is the man a victim of terror and torture or an extremist bent on destruction? The head of Germany’s super secret anti-terrorist team, Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), takes on the difficult mission to find the answer in “A Most Wanted Man.”
This is the last starring role for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and, for me, it is a sad and melancholy performance by a great actor. Günter is a renegade in the German espionage business and makes no bones about his disdain for his superiors. When the ragged man comes to his attention, Bachmann’s team learns that he is a Chechen, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), seeking asylum. Through an intermediary, civil rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), Bachmann learns the reason for his arrival - to lay claim to the 10 million Euros that his late Russian father deposited in a German bank.
The money, though, is not the focus of “A Most Wanted Man.” It is adapted, by director Anton Corbijn and scripter Andrew Bovell, from uber-spy novelist John le Carre’s 2008 novel, so, as one would expect, the story dovetails in many directions. This involves Muslim philanthropist, Faisil Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who is suspected, by the German and American governments, of channeling charitable contributions to terrorist organizations. As the intrigue plays out, Karpov and Abdullah will become firmly intertwined as the spy community goes through its spy machinations.
“A Most Wanted Man” is a more cerebral espionage thriller than we are used to from Hollywood. There are no his speed car chases – Gunther does chase, on foot, Issa and Annabel, though slowly and unsuccessfully – or massive shootouts. Much of the “action” is Gunther chain smoking and drinking, which makes me want to go back and see how many times PSH lights up or gulps a whiskey over the course of the film. His smoking and drinking are part of his hard-boiled, no nonsense ways but, with his disdain for authority, he has made enemies in the intelligence world that will come back to haunt him.
Hoffman, sporting a German accent, has that world weary air of a man who has been in the spy biz too long and seen too much by far. Rachel McAdams is good as the activist lawyer, though her German accent sounds more like she attended an English boarding school as a girl. The always versatile Willem Dafoe does a decent job as banker Thomas Brue who lands smack in the middle of the growing intrigue because of the 10 million Euros. The rest of the big cast is mostly background characters with little shading. Nina Hoss, as Gunther’s loyal assistant Irna, does stand out from the rest.
The plot twists and turns are genuine John le Carre and, I have to admit, I did not see the end coming. And neither did Gunther. I give it a B.
Along Hamburg's docks, a filthy Chechen man in a hoodie emerges before slipping into the city's Islamic community. He's caught on a surveillance tape and his presence will shift the focus of anti-terror unit chief Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose team has been investigating Muslim academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi, "Taste of Cherry," "Zero Dark Thirty"). But Günther's old world spying tactics clash with Hamburg's domestic intelligence agency chief Dieter Mohr's (Rainer Bock, "Inglourious Basterds," "The Book Thief") style and while C.I.A. officer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, "The Princess Bride") supports him, Bachmann doesn't trust her objectives in their hunt for "A Most Wanted Man."
Rock photographer Anton Corbijn established himself as a filmmaker with the Ian Curtis biopic "Control," but now he's establishing himself as the go-to guy for slow burn takes on those who work under the radar, first with "The American" and now this adaptation of a John le Carré novel (Andrew Bovell, "Lantana," 2010's "Edge of Darkness"). In his last completed lead role, Philip Seymour Hoffman creates another complex character, a hard drinking and smoking disillusioned spy willing to give Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) the benefit of the doubt in a play to bring down bigger targets, a process he describes as using a minnow to catch a barracuda as bait for a shark. If at first his German accent seems unnatural, trust in the actor, whose low guttural enunciation exhibits an ear finely tuned to the idiosyncrasies of the language.
The story is classic le Carré, a moral, downtrodden protagonist maneuvering through shady political environments to achieve his objective. The more Bachmann learns about Karpov, classified as an escaped militant jihadist, the more he believes in his innocence, but the young man's actions to secure his Russian father's bank account, worth tens of millions of Euros, provides a tool that may help uncover Abdullah's dealings with the Seven Sisters shipping company, a suspected Al Qaeda front, and by puppeteering the young man, Bachmann can keep other agencies at bay - for a time. But Bachmann's Achilles heel is two-fold - he cannot hide his contempt for those whose methods he abhors and he doesn't recognize how his own fishing metaphor applies to the waters in which he swims.
Hoffman, who uses bursts of physicality to establish power and control, is great here, tired but still determined to do things the right (his) way. His relationship with right hand woman Irna Frey (Nina Hoss, "Barbara") suggests a past or wished for romantic one. Hoss projects someone who is very good at what she does while watching out for her boss's back. These two complement each other wonderfully, evoking a trusted partnership of many years. The team also includes loyal agents Maximilian (Daniel Brühl, "Rush," underutilized) and Niki (Vicky Krieps, "Hanna"). Bock is ruthless, a hammer annoyed by higher ups' concessions. Wright appears as the friendly American, but the actress is sly enough to convey just why her character is mistrusted. As a human rights lawyer in over her head, Rachel McAdams ("To the Wonder," "About Time") is passionate, but her clipped enunciation does not pass as a German accent. Dobrygin is vulnerable and sympathetic as the focus of the man hunt and Mehdi Dehbi, TV's 'Tyrant' conveys the anxiety of informing from within as Abdullah's son. Willem Dafoe ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") is cast against type as Karpov's parallel, a banker attempting to atone for the sins of his father.
Corbijn's production is cast in the icy blues of a seaport with autumnal shadings reflecting his lead's emotional state which composer Herbert Grönemeyer accentuates with mournful strings. The director gets deep characterizations from his cast while keeping all the strands of a multi-threaded tale in focus. "A Most Wanted Man" isn't as wholly satisfying as Tomas Alfredson's 2011 le Carré adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," perhaps due to its post 9/11 cynicism, but it works as the portrait of a man trying to keep his moral compass in choppy seas threatening to swamp him.
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