10 years in the making

A Most Wanted Man

Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, based on a John le Carré spy novel, is set in a grey and watery post 9/11 Hamburg, the city from which the attack on the Twin Towers was planned. The German and international intelligence services are paranoid about missing another Islamist plot and their suspicions fall on a young Chechen Muslim immigrant, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who they fear has arrived to plan a new atrocity. The heads of the intelligence units want to move against him, but Gunther Bachmann, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, pleads for more time in the hope Karpov will be the bait that leads him to bigger fish. He heads an illegal, but state-sponsored counter terrorist unit and he’s given 72 hours before he has to hand over Karpov to his bosses. The morality is as cold and foggy as the surroundings.
Bachmann’s team works in the shadows to meticulously piece together the evidence. ‘We take our time we watch and wait’, as he puts it. They also listen, surrounded by a jumble of devices, trying to nail the chief suspect in a plot to finance Islamic jihadists. But while the pace of the film is slow, the tensions between Bachmann’s softly softly approach and that of his bosses, the friendships betrayed and the mutual suspicions create a complex and gripping dynamic. It’s reflected in every movement of Hoffman’s face, every shuffle of his feet and slump of his body, and in the soft and slow hypnotic voice that sounds strangely like a Teutonic Richard Burton. Rachel McAdams is an idealistic left-wing lawyer who finds herself out of her depth in the manipulations of the intelligence services, while Robin Wright is a cool and clever CIA officer. Willem Dafoe is ominous as banker Thomas Brue.
But the screen belongs to Hoffman and he’s almost never off it, playing an emotionally and physically worn-out spy, unshaven, prowling about seedy bars and dilapidated tenements in his dishevelled suit, hoisting up his trousers and slipping whiskey into his cappuccinos. There can be no other person who pulls harder on a cigarette than Hoffman.
It’s true that you can’t help remembering this is one of Hoffman’s last films and you can’t help but draw parallels. It’s a portrayal of despair that with hindsight could be read in many ways, and it’s also a masterclass in acting that leaves a lasting impression. That makes it a fitting epitaph to a really great actor.