The spy genre doesn’t exactly lend itself to directorial flourishes. Usually, the best you can say is that the plot held together, the action sequences were exciting, the film kept you in suspense, and it offered a satisfying twist or two.
I had mildly higher hopes for A Most Wanted Man, which is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role, and director Anton Corbijn’s latest work. Corbijn’s previous film The American took a deliberately dry approach to the genre, featuring George Clooney as a workmanlike assassin. Some found The American boring but I found it refreshing.
A Most Wanted Man is based on a book by John le Carré, whose spy novels inevitably have a realistic grimness that provides an interesting, meaty contrast to the James Bond and Mission: Impossible films.
I suppose I have nothing to complain about because A Most Wanted Man offers all of that.
Hamburg: Nest of Spies
A young Chechen man (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives on the shores of Hamburg, Germany. He’s being watched by a spy agency — a small office, really — headed by Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and backed up by Irna Frey (Nina Hoss, in a nice bit of casting; she starred in Barbara, in which her character tries to escape East Germany’s spies).
Bachmann believes the Chechen Issa Karpov is here as a terrorist with ties to a prominent Muslim scholar known as Abdulla (Homayoun Ershadi). The German civil authorities (Rainer Bock playing a man named Otto) want to arrest Issa as soon as they can, but Bachmann wants to play him a little longer — see if this little fish leads him to bigger fish.
Issa is trying to make contact with a local banker named Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father knew his father, and who may be obligated to give Issa a very large sum of money.
Then there are the Americans — Robin Wright plays a CIA representative in Hamburg — who are interested in anything Bachmann might learn, and who have an annoying sense of superiority here on Bachmann’s own turf.
And if that weren’t enough, Annabelle Richter (Rachel McAdams) is a young lawyer with an NGO representing refugees in Germany. She insists that as a refugee, Issa has rights, and she’s going to see to it that nobody tramples on them. In Bachmann’s eyes she’s naïve. In her eyes Bachmann is arrogant and dangerous. A long scene late in the film pits them against each other and provides some of the film’s most unlikely drama.
Ovation for, Hoffman
One of the best things about A Most Wanted Man is a solid final performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman (with the exception of an odd accent that sometimes sounds more Irish than German).
Le Carré’s spies are cerebral, not action-oriented; they are non-glamorous bureaucrats squeezed by the politicians who control them; they pay the emotional costs of doing a nation’s dirty work, getting very little in return.
Hoffman fits the role perfectly, with some help from Corbijn and production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel. He drives a 20-year-old Mercedes, reliable but cheap. He wears cheap suits or street clothes. He smokes, drinks, and sweats. When he’s working, he’s professional and competent; and he’s almost always working.
Once, in order not to be recognized, he pulls his assistant Irna in for a kiss. It’s a scene you’ve seen plenty of times — pretend to be a couple making out so that the mark won’t think you’re following him. Usually there’s a spark of chemistry in that scene, but in A Most Wanted Man, when they break, it’s as though nothing had happened.
In a later scene we get to see Bachmann at home. He has a small apartment cluttered with work he has taken home. His consolation is an upright piano that he plays, not perfectly, but well.
Keeping up with the plot is the audience’s main job. It’s satisfying work, but it does seem to let Corbijn off the hook a little. Ever since I learned Corbijn’s name through the Palm Pictures compilation The Work of Director Anton Corbijn, I’ve had high expectations for his films. A Most Wanted Man is a competent spy thriller, but it doesn’t have much of a signature style. For most people, that won’t be an issue.
My other reservation is also personal. For me, Tomas Alfredson set the gold standard for le Carré spy films with 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alfredson’s “style,” if you will, is a ruthless leanness that demands at least two viewings and rewards you with a sense of awe at the clockwork precision of the script, editing, and direction. Since then, every serious spy movie I see is subconsciously judged against Tinker Tailor. Even when a film is perfectly competent, as this one is, it doesn’t quite meet that gold standard in my head.
Still, the plot held together, the action sequences were exciting, the film kept me in suspense, and it offered a satisfying twist or two. What more could one ask?