September 07, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Somebody from The Village Voice once said--it might have been Alan Scherstuhl--that there wasn't a single movie that wasn't improved by featuring a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. As I sat in the theater watching A Most Wanted Man, I felt like a scout, looking for those moments in Hoffman's performance when something distinctly him emerged. For a while, I was worried, because the film is so subdued and so deliberately paced, I felt it might unintentionally blanch the normally colorful acting of this great, sadly now deceased performer. But, Hoffman "showed up" as it were, injecting little pieces of his big, unpredictable, yet somehow always structured, acting persona into a character that is mostly calm, organized, quiet, cautious.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachman, a German intelligence agent relegated to a super-secret and decidedly small sub-organization that was created to bypass German laws in searching for terrorist operatives. Bachman lives with the grim guilt of failing to prevent 9/11 from happening (it was planned partly in his city, Hamburg). So now he's more focused than ever on nabbing potential terrorists. When a man (a suspected terrorist) named Isa Karpov flees Chechnya seeking asylum in Hamburg, it becomes a race between Bachman's group and the mainstream German intelligence to catch him: At first, their mission appears to be in sync, but soon Karpov's guilt is called into question. He seeks aid from a compassionate German lawyer named Annabelle Richter (Rachel McAdams) who works for a non-profit organization that aids people like him. She believes in his innocence, but Bachman isn't so sure, and both German and American intelligence agents are sharpening their knives and waiting to go in for the kill.

Like 2011's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this latest adaptation of a John Le CarrĂ© spy novel is slowly paced but in a way that thoroughly pulls you in. The world of this film is quite fascinating, and the movie lets us savor it, think inside it. Even though there are many entertaining James Bond-esque movies (most recently, Skyfall), you don't always get a sense of the environment or of the characters and how they are affected by their work. (Although Skyfall is certainly an exception.) Both kinds of films have their place. However, the second kind, the deliberately slower kind, is in decidedly shorter supply. But perhaps this makes those of us who like these slower spy movies more grateful, possibly even less demanding of the films when they do appear. And yet, I was prepared to pronounce A Most Wanted Man boring and confusing for about the first 20 minutes. But soon after, I was hooked, and felt invested in everything that was going on. And there's nary an explosion to be seen in the entire film. What a refreshing thing it is to have another adult movie about spies. The ending is shattering, the characters all too human, and the film highly worth watching. 

With Willem Defoe, Daniel Bruhl, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. Written by Andrew Bovell. Directed by Anton Corbijn.

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