Philip Seymour Hoffman leaves behind one final exceptional leading performance in Anton Corbijn’s smart, stylish, and thrilling John le Carré adaptation, A Most Wanted Man. Although he still has a supporting role in the upcoming final installments of The Hunger Games and the yet-to-be-released-in-Canada God’s Pocket, it’s the last time we’ll ever see Hoffman (who died earlier this year) command the screen as only he could, and it’s a hell of a final note to go out on. Thankfully, the movie is better than just having Hoffman in the lead, and there’s plenty of praise to go around here.
Hoffman stars as Günther Bachmann, a spy working for the German government in Hamburg, a city that has become ground zero for the global war on terrorism since September 11th, 2001. Into his city arrives Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a former Chechen Muslim separatist who has illegally entered the country with hopes of settling his father’s estate and immigrating in hopes of a better life. Issa’s father was a rich, but terrible man and the inheritance is essentially blood money, which leads US and European government officials to believe that he’ll use the funds to stage a major attack. Günther isn’t entirely convinced, but being the black sheep of his department since a cock-up in Beirut years earlier that hasn’t endeared him to his leery US counterpart (Robin Wright), he only has 72 hours to bring in Issa, convince his target’s immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) that he’s trying to help, and come up with an elaborate way of using Issa to entrap a man that’s a far more dangerous threat.
There’s a lot of angles being played in the tightly constructed screenplay from Andrew Bovell (Edge of Darkness, Strictly Ballroom), and Corbijn brings the same amount of slow burning cool and grace under pressure that he brought to his underrated George Clooney vehicle The American and his Ian Curtis biopic Control. It’s a film about hard-headed, smooth operating professionals like Hoffman and Wright’s characters coming into the lives of people who are scared and confused. There are undoubtedly questions being made about the tactics and the effectiveness of the aggressive antiterrorism campaign around the world, but the focus here is far more human and generational. None of these characters regardless of status has any reason to trust anyone else. These characters often never believe what they’re being told by one another, and if they have to help each other it’s done either unknowingly or a resigned weariness.
It’s not a glamorous world of spying anymore, and one that’s visually not too far removed from the similarly conflicted tone of the adaptations of le Carré’s similarly themed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In some cases, the offices haven’t changed with the increased budget for surveillance and counterintelligence apparently not extending to paying for nicer offices and forcing operatives to still camp out in obvious, but nondescript undercover cargo vans all the time. It’s not a glamorous look at spying, and Corbijn shoots the film with an effective weariness that suggests a bad hangover. There’s a sadness and pain that’s palpable in every frame to match the performances and decidedly downbeat tone of the script and story. From top to bottom the story unfolds in such a style that audience knows someone is going to get screwed over horribly by the end of the film, but it’s never apparent who that person might be.
And while Hoffman might be running the show dramatically, the film comes complete with an equally game supporting cast that’s almost an embarrassment of riches. The film doesn’t need the likes of Willem Defoe (as a hesitant banker facilitating the transfer Issa’s inheritance) or Daniel Brühl (as one of Günther’s operatives) since neither really has a deep character to work with. They’re just so talented that they add a little extra to an already good film. Wright does some of her best work as the seemingly helpful American. Dobrygin plays Issa so well that it’s never sure if he should be sympathetic or not, often vacillating between deep depression and righteous, fervent anger in a matter of second. McAdams has also come into her own as a performer as of late, often conveying complex emotions here with simple glances, sighs, and body language.
They all work well against Hoffman, who plays Günther as a consummate professional that’s growing increasingly fed up with his job and his lot in life. Günther knows how to be everything to everyone around him. His particular set of skills includes being not only a masterful manipulator, but also an exceptional listener who occasionally lets his heart and gut get the better of his more trustworthy mind.
It all builds to a climax that hits with the force of a train. It’s one of the best endings of the year and one of the best scenes of Hoffman’s career. It’s a moment of pure, unfiltered emotion in a film about trying to suppress personal feelings, and Hoffman is so great in it that it’s hard not to get teary eyed when it happens, both for the character and for what we as a society have lost with the passing of one of our generation’s greatest actors. Thankfully, unlike far too many screen icons, he went out with a worthy final leading role.