Over the years, John le Carre has been neither shy nor disingenuous about screen treatments of his books, and even co-wrote two of the adaptations. A Most Wanted Man, based on his 2008 bestseller, marked his third outing as an executive producer—and the author has made it publicly quite clear that he is pleased with the streamlined screenplay by Andrew Bovell, Anton’s Corbijn’s taut direction, and most especially Philip Seymour Hoffman’s galvanizing central performance—the actor’s last major role before his death in February of 2014.
Set in Hamburg, the city where Mohammed Atta and his co-conspirators lived prior to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., the story begins a few years later with German and American intelligence officers desperate to disrupt any further terrorist operations there. As Gunther Bachmann—an intelligence mastermind who operates his own small unit “outside” the formal German service—Hoffman’s world-weary, chain-smoking, scotch-swilling wiseman is the lens of le Carre’s characteristic perspective: he knows that intelligence services (even the purportedly “good ones”) have an inherent amorality all their own, sometimes inevitably destroying ordinary lives even as they work to make the world “a safer place”. He tries, without much hope, to play the long game at least a little less crudely, a little more realistically, a little more humanely.
Attention becomes fixed on a new arrival in the city, a wraith-thin young man named Issa Karpov—half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim, and bearing the marks of apparent torture—who is sheltered by an idealistic human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams). The lawyer wants to assist him in his apparently legitimate claim that his father has left him millions of euros in a Hamburg bank. The questions in very tense play are whether or not his story is true, might he instead be an escaped military jihadist, and will Gunther and his unit be allowed to sort out the delicate complexities at hand before other more formal agencies, champing at the bit, pounce. Among Gunther’s friendly foes are a CIA attaché played by Robin Wright, whose performance—though inevitably redolent of her somewhat similar turn as a beltway Lady Macbeth on Netflix’s “House of Cards”—is a chilling study in the mock-sincerity of professionally bureaucratic bonhomie.
Russian actor Grigoriy Dybrogin gives shadings of secret trauma, brooding menace, and a sorrowing heart to his nearly mute role as the enigmatic young man, and Willem Dafoe, as the worldly (but, in his own very private way, surprisingly vulnerable) banker authenticating Issa’s claim, gives one of his most richly layered screen performances in years.
Corbijn exploits Hamburg to the fullest as atmospheric context for this tale of treachery and tenuous moral choices. The industrial guts of this large northern port city are often in view, the icy waters of the Elbe River in winter glint darkly in the background, and Corbijn very effectively compresses dramatic moments in location shots such as bare-treed parks, night-lit subways, and dim bars. He gives the film an elegant velocity–even in its quietest, most unhurried scenes, A Most Wanted Man feels as though it is speeding down a narrow rail of inevitability, peril looming on all sides every moment of the way.
It’s impossible to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman here without thinking about what we know, and what we cannot know, about his untimely death. In the stark lighting of certain interior scenes the actor appears flushed and bloated, but whatever infirmities he was fighting are subsumed into the self-effacing performance; it is constructed with delicate, meticulous artistry, and the attention to detail is unremitting. Hoffman’s conflicted spy is a cynical idealist with a clenched interiority, a very rare boyish smile that seems to surprise even himself, a need to work relentlessly beyond even the failure of hope. We can appreciate, too, the rightness of other choices, such as Gunther’s almost never being without a cigarette and how he downs his frequent neat scotches as if they were tea—and rarely has the loneliness of the solitary smoker and drinker seemed more ineffably lonely.
In Hoffman’s haunted and haunting portrayal, Gunther Bachmann is an antiheroic hero who will live in film history.
– Hadley Hury