A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Starring- Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Daniel Bruhl, Rainer Bock
Director- Anton Corbijn
For obvious reasons, A Most Wanted Man didn’t intend to be a love letter and sad farewell to Philip Seymour Hoffman, but that’s ended up its fate — and unlike so many other films to have found themselves in that unfortunate position, it lives up to the task. It’s a poignant reminder of what we’ve lost — in more ways than one.
Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a member of a secret anti-terror group operating in Hamburg, where the plans for the 9/11 attacks were laid. Currently, he’s got his sights set on Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy, Western-minded philanthropist he suspects is secretly donating a fraction of his fortune to an al-Qaeda front organization. When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Russian convict with apparent connections to Chechen terrorists, sneaks into Hamburg to collect the inheritance left for him by his wealthy father, Gunther sees an opportunity not only to pin Abdullah but to chase that lead all the way to the top of the terror groups he’s supporting. Unfortunately, it’s not just Gunther’s group on Issa’s scent, and he’s soon in a race against time to find his man before trigger-happy international forces undo all his hard work.
A Most Wanted Man is not technically Hoffman’s last film; that status will be reserved for the second part of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Nevertheless, it is the last time we’ll see the sort of rich, complicated, seamless, center-stage performance for which he was famous. And his work here is astonishingly, tragically good, easily on par with his Oscar-winning performance in Capote.
Hoffman was capable of disappearing into a role entirely, and A Most Wanted Man is the proof. The disparity between this and his stint as Truman Capote could not possibly be more dramatic, and yet, both are totally believable characters possessed of their own quirks and mannerisms and next to none of Hoffman’s own. Capote was, well, Capote — high-pitched voice, effete, meek but somehow unfailingly confident. Gunther Bachmann is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in every respect other than his intelligence and calculation. It’s the sort of role that would ordinarily have been given to someone like Brendan Gleeson — the gruff, scarred veteran, a leader in the forces of darkness, a man who both has a moral center and is frightfully aware of how thoroughly it’s been compromised. Gunther is no longer under any illusions, if indeed he ever was — he’s seen too many well-laid plans unravel. Too many people under his command have met ignominious ends. That hasn’t always been his fault, but sometimes, it has. At any rate, he no longer sees any glory in his work, or even any compelling end to justify the means.
It’s fitting that the film should be so aware of the things we’ve lost. It’s a post-9/11 thriller in the most traditional sense — a film that’s mired in paranoia and overreaction. The arc phrase of the film is an American’s response to the question of why they do what they do: “To make the world a safer place.” Gunther says it when it’s convenient to, but there’s always a barely perceptible sneer behind it. A Most Wanted Man isn’t as interested in the ethics of its characters’ actions as maybe it ought to be, but it’s smartly aware of the anti-terror climate. Gunther, more than anyone, is acutely aware of the cyclical nature of his work and the way that it requires him to arbitrarily select his targets — one terrorist is a potential informant who ought to be granted amnesty; another ought to be dragged away to a dark room somewhere and locked up for the rest of his meager existence. He also knows innocents are getting caught in the crossfire, and that seems, at the very least, to be a component of his cynicism about the whole endeavor.
Still, there’s clearly a part of him that believes that, through subtler efforts, he can find a less destructive way to execute the whole process, one that leaves a thinner trail of blood and that attacks the head rather than the hands and feet. The film, for the most part, is a long exercise in disabusing him of that notion — confirming his cynicism, allowing him to get frustratingly close to bringing his plans to fruition only to sweep the rug out from under him and just the moment when it hurts the most.
The film manages to ask some interesting questions in the pursuit of this end. The entire story is very much about the complication of fighting terror — of trying to snuff out not an opposing nation or military force but an idea, locating its source and determining how to stop it there. It’s a matter that’s easy to see in black and white, but A Most Wanted Man makes it clear that it’s anything but. It seems, on one hand, that justice demands anyone involved in committing acts of terror ought to be apprehended. On the other hand, it’s not always feasible — especially when your long-term goal is not merely to capture every criminal you find. What do you do if you have a murderer on your hands, but setting that murderer free might be your only path to catching someone even worse? How do you deal with it when you have a man who gives 90 percent of his millions to the starving and the remaining 10 to terrorists? Do you punish him, or do you control him?
On the whole, though, I think the film’s political inclination is simplistic — perhaps overly so, if not in the truth of the matter then at least in the delivery. Ultimately, its point is that the gung-ho, avenger-of-justice approach gets everyone nowhere and doesn’t come close to solving the problem. It’s hard to disagree with that, nor with the way the film argues it; still, it’s a smaller, simpler point than one would expect to come out of what is, ultimately, an extremely complex film — albeit one that, oddly, doesn’t seem interested in several of the most pressing questions it raises, not the least of which is what it looks like to fight terrorism the moral way.
However, subtext aside, what we have here is still an excellent spy movie. I can’t claim to be any sort of expert on the art of espionage, but I certainly suspect it’s more or less the way it looks in A Most Wanted Man — not leaping from rooftops, not incessant gunplay, not lowering yourself through a ceiling and hacking into a computer upside-down while surrounded by lasers. It’s a quiet affair that takes place largely in dark rooms behind the dim glow of a computer screen. That’s not to say that A Most Wanted Man is boring; on the contrary, it makes that process absolutely riveting. That stems from its fascination not with action sequences but with story and character. A Most Wanted Man is a drama more than anything; no one so much as fires a shot. What action it has comes little and, mostly, late. Nevertheless, it’s pulse-pounding.
A Most Wanted Man is, of course, a dire, cynical, and chilly film — perhaps even to its detriment — but, for the most part, understandably so. But it’s great at what it’s trying to do, and it’s sharply, sometimes cuttingly intelligent.
Its ending — a favorite of mine from this year in cinema — is reminiscent of Captain Phillips. Both leave their protagonists in mixed emotional states composed of equal parts adrenaline, desperation, relief, mourning, confusion, and maybe even a touch of hopelessness. Both required borderline career-best work out of their vaunted stars.
In those moments, Hoffman delivers. He reminds us why he was so acclaimed and, indeed, how sad it is to have lost him this soon.
R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.