“A Most Wanted Man” is one of the trio of movies Philip Seymour Hoffman had in the can when he passed away last February. The spy thriller, based on a novel by John le Carré, is his final leading role and it is difficult to watch the film without a sense of dark foreboding.
One throwaway moment that has more resonance now takes place in a bar. Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) offers Annabel (Rachel McAdams) a cigarette.
“It’s OK,” she says. “I’ve given up.”
“Good luck with that,” he replies with the sardonic tone of someone who has tried and failed to let go of their vices. Blink and you’ll miss it, but taken in context his reaction is chilling, as is CIA agent Martha Sullivan’s (Robin Wright) line, “Even good men have a little bit of bad in them… and that little bit could kill you.”
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, of course, but these references to addiction and mortality, no matter how subtle, add pathos to an already poignant performance.
Hoffman plays Bachman, the head an anti-terrorism unit working in Hamburg, Germany. “Not many people know about it,” he says, “even less like it.” He works deep undercover with a small team, but this is no high flying spy style adventure. Instead, it’s a spy story about money transfers, private bankers (Willem Dafoe), a human-rights attorney (who Günther “a social worker for terrorists,” played by McAdams), a respected Muslim academic and philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi), and Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a half-Chechen, half-Russian refugee who might be worth $10 million. As he follows the money Bachman must untangle the web of intrigue in just 72 hours or the German police will upend his plans.
Looking like an unmade bed, Hoffman plays Günther as a hard drinking, chain smoking, heavy-breathing anti-James Bond. His one action scene involves walking across a bar ton punch someone in the face. The thrills here come from his methodical piecing together of the clues and his manipulation of the personalities involved. It’s a terrific performance in which you can feel the weight of the world in every decision he makes, every step he takes. It’s just a shame that the movie seems to value the minutiae over its characters.
Hoffman shines, but others aren’t given the opportunity. Wright has a handful of scenes but is primarily a plot point and not a rounded character. Dobrygin succeeds in looking mournful and Dafoe, while believable as a shady banker, isn’t given enough to do. Only McAdams as the idealistic but conflicted lawyer and the city of Hamburg—whose suitably seedy underbelly is as well developed a character as is on display here—keeps up with Hoffman.
“A Most Wanted Man” features a measured but intense performance from Hoffman, but the film itself isn’t as interesting as he is.