A Most Wanted Man Directed by Anton Corbijn; written by Andrew Bovell, based on a novel by John Le Carre; with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Nina Hoss, Daniel Bruhl
Paranoia and urbanity complement each other in “A Most Wanted Man,” Dutch director Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the 2008 John Le Carre novel. The movie is set in Hamburg, with a brief foray to Berlin (which is deliberately not made to seem very different from the German harbor city). Corbijn – who, before directing his impressive first feature, the 2007 “Control,” was a respected still photographer and maker of music videos – situates the plot within these urban landscapes, so that the story’s paranoia fills them like a menacing fog (he is helped in this by the work of the excellent French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme).
At some moments of “A Most Wanted Man,” I found myself less interested in the plot than in how that plot was presented within the setting. After all, while I respect John Le Carre’s abilities as a writer and storyteller as much as I always have, we have more than five decades’ worth of experience with his invented world. Having read his books and seen the movies they inspired, we are familiar with the principles on which that world is constructed, we know his characters and the kinds of relationships they have, and above all we know the pessimism that Le Carre’s work has expressed ever since the Cold War. Corbijn has directed his movie with the same restraint found in Le Carre’s fiction and in its best movie adaptations, from Martin Ritt’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1965) to Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011). This restraint might have given “A Most Wanted Man” a certain monotony, but Corbijn is deft enough to avoid that.
The link between paranoia and urban life is exactly the right emphasis for a film set in the aftermath of 9/11 – a day that both generated the images of an attack on the most memorable of urban symbols and sent a wave of paranoia through the world. Moreover, the story takes place in the city where the attack was planned. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads a small intelligence unit that runs surveillance on Hamburg’s Muslim population. The unit springs to action with the illegal arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee and devout Muslim, who claims that his father was a high-ranking Russian officer. Issa, who is seeking asylum in Germany, says that his father had a bank account containing millions of Euros at a private German bank run by Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe). Most of the story follows the efforts made by Gunther and his team to exploit Issa’s predicament and the money that supposedly belonged to his father in order to entrap a Muslim leader (Homayoun Ershadi); Gunther does not believe the latter is really a moderate and suspects that his fundraising is partly used to buy weapons for terrorist organizations.
Also involved in the plot are Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights lawyer who comes to Issa’s defense and finds herself also exploited by Gunther; Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a CIA agent; and other intelligence operatives, who compete with Gunther and disapprove of his methods.
The movie works as a high-class spy thriller, but it has its flaws. Some of the characters are insufficiently crafted: Issa especially is so romanticized that he loses whatever enigmatic quality he could have, which might have added some mystery to the film. The movie also completely squanders the talents of Nina Hoss, an acclaimed German actress who plays Gunther’s assistant, not to mention those of Daniel Bruhl, another respected German actor who here is asked to do nothing except stare at video screens in silence. The decision to dye Robin Wright’s hair shoe-polish black is supposed to tell us something about her character – a rather primitive device.
All this leaves us with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the last major role he managed to complete before his death in February at the age of 46 (we will still have a chance to see him in the two final “Hunger Games” movies). Hoffman’s performance in “A Most Wanted Man” is a proper swan song for this fine actor. His disheveled Gunther chain-smokes and drinks constantly, and Hoffman plays him so that despite his central role in the plot, he blends into the movie without attracting too much attention. This is an unromanticized performance that highlights the strain between the hero’s professionalism and his frustration; and when Gunther needs to show emotion, he does so with a restraint befitting the movie as a whole. The last shot of the film, even if Corbijn and Hoffman didn’t know it at the time, makes it seem as though not only Gunther but Hoffman is fading away from us, and the emotional impact of that moment burns itself on the memory.