Germany’s Most Wanted: A Most Wanted Man

07/16/2014 4:00 AM |

A Most Wanted Man
Directed by Anton Corbijn

As shaky-cam world-stage espionage thrillers go, A Most Wanted Man is fairly standard-issue: good solid tradecraft is on ample display, while the moral drag of working “in the shadows” (as Dick Cheney called it) pervades the atmosphere. What surplus gravity the movie does have is at least partially attributable to external factors: shortly after A Most Wanted Man’s Sundance premiere, of course, its indomitable lead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, succumbed to a heroin overdose—as pale-faced operative Günther Bachmann, hanging on for dear life to a bottomless tumbler of scotch, he hauntingly embodies the movie’s world-weary soul—while its portrayal of the jurisdictional friction among various German and American intelligence bodies immediately summons to mind the real-life spy scandal now brewing between the two countries.

Adapted from a novel by Brit author John le Carré by Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell, and directed by Dutchman Anton Corbijn, A Most Wanted Man takes place on the trash-strewn streets of Hamburg, Germany. In the film’s opening shots, we see the River Elbe belch forth a mysterious bearded figure, soon identified in a grainy cell-phone snap by Bachmann’s scrappy anti-terror unit (his subordinates include Barbara herself, Nina Hoss, and Daniel Brühl, who is given little to do here besides sit expectantly while wearing headphones). The team tails Chechen jihadist Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) as he links up with a humanitarian lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a big-shot banker (Willem Dafoe), in search of asylum and his deceased father’s fortune.

Bachmann at least proves methodical in his dirty work, constantly fending off others (including the CIA’s Robin Wright) who’d prefer a bruter-force approach: against others’ desire to swoop in and capture Issa, he preaches patience, hoping that the young man might help them snare a more prominent terror financier. While it spends most of its time contrasting different styles of global-affairs “realism” (it’s what you think vs. what you know), the film does also manage to sketch out complicated motives from all sides—despite a largely one-note portrayal, the half-Russian Issa emerges as a singularly tortured individual, while even murkier are the beliefs of a suave Muslim academic under suspicion from the start.

Corbijn’s last feature, 2010’s stylishly vaporous The American, tracked George Clooney’s lone-wolf assassin as he tried to lie low in Europe, and here he casts a number of North American actors as Germans, alongside actual Germans, though everyone speaks English. The director (a former photographer himself) and DP Benoît Delhomme ably capture the city’s grubbier precincts—its crumbling stone-building facades scrawled with graffiti, its airless dive bars, and even its fading-mod office interiors—but watching, say, Dafoe and McAdams converse with each other in their (otherwise passable) slow, staccato accents is enough to take you out of the movie’s high-tension environment.

Such off-putting moments actually happen to be the ones when Hoffman isn’t on-screen. Bachmann often seems to be curling into a defeated roly-poly slouch, but he nonetheless remains throughout a consummate actor himself, constantly soliciting the trust of colleagues and persons-of-interest alike. We are given just enough of his threadbare private life to imagine who this man might be with his guard down—not long before the film’s well-played finale, he sits down to tap out a few notes at an upright piano among his apartment’s telling bachelor-pad disarray (record collection, newspapers piled at the foot of an easy chair). This is not Lancaster Dodd–level work, but then again not much else is. One leaves A Most Wanted Man reminded of the sad fact that its star won’t be elevating such material any longer.

Opens July 25