Directed by: Aonton Corbijn; Runtime: 123 minutes
Critiquing the final original project of a successful actor, especially one as well-regarded and prolific as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, presents its challenges: the urge might be there to elevate the entire film in response to his performance, or to simply give it a pass in order to relish the remaining fresh content of their career. While the remaining Hunger Games films will feature him in his recurring role for two more bouts in the arena, A Most Wanted Man ends up being his last substantial, outside-the-box appearance, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better showcase for his talent than the methodical atmosphere created by Anton Corbijn. Through a morally-ambiguous deconstruction of suspecting individuals of terrorist ties and activities in metropolitan Germany, Corbijn allows a stream of subtle and pertinent tension to surface amid sleuthing, dot-connecting, and surveillance, driven by a weathered intelligence director who's become entirely proficient at navigating the gray shadows of espionage.
Adapted from John Le Carre's novel by Edge of Darkness scribe Andrew Blovell, A Most Wanted Man slips into the cluttered maze of Hamburg, just as a covert intelligence group spots a suspicious face in CCTV footage. With confirmed ties to known terrorist activity, the half-Russian immigrant -- a victim of aggressive torture -- becomes the subject of Gunther Bachmann's small crew of investigators and plants, following him through the city as he seeks asylum and a means of collecting his family's extensive fortune. Bachmann struggles to cooperate with several domestic and international branches of government who've taken an active interest in his target, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), as well as the refugee's newly-recruited immigration lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). As Karpov inches closer to claiming his birthright, tension mounts over his intention with the funds, as well as whether Bachmann's sleuthing will give the suspect so much rope in baiting potential allies that it might end up being too late.
Those who've seen Anton Corbijn's The American should have an idea of how meticulous, low-impact tension drives the espionage in A Most Wanted Man, though he taps into more verve and momentum as this one maneuvers through the streets of Hamburg. The mystery tends to take hasty jumps through the investigation and the strained political relationships surrounding Gunther, though, relying on willfully vague plotting around Karpov that both expands the story's intrigue and keeps those watching at arm's length. Corbijn hopes to counterbalance the abstraction with hefty, absorbing gray-area themes involving money switching hands, the flawed science of suspicion and intel, and empathizing with those who easily appear capable of monumental charges. Labored plotting and conversations that string everything together prevent it from being entirely successful, rendering stale moments of chatty exposition and an ineffectual romantic angle involving the suspect, but the timely thematic weight that expands within each scene speaks louder.
The potency of A Most Wanted Man relies on capturing the authentic responses of those caught in Hamburg's terrorism web -- Gunther's task force, their targets, and the government branches wanting to both help and regulate their affairs -- and showcasing the impact of so many formidable components brushing against one another. At the center stands Gunther Bachmann, and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a different form of game-maker in his orchestration of the real-world spy/surveillance tactics in gathering intel on Karpov. Hoffman's scruffy, weathered aura plays incredibly well into Bachmann's worn-down disposition after years of thankless work, thrusting a gravelly yet nuanced accent through his heavy-breathed dedication to fighting terrorism by any means necessary. He displays a great rapport with his comrades, allowing the character's subtle charms to emerge around his closest assistant, Erna Frey (Nina Hoss), and his effective intimidation to persuade local high-profile banker Tommy Brue (a capably European-acting Willem Dafoe) to cooperate with his cause. Robin Wright delivers a subdued spin on Claire Underwood as an American security diplomat, generating disparate energy against Bachmann's ardent agenda.
A Most Wanted Man settles into its rhythm quite similar to the way Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another adaptation of one of John Le Carre's novels, does: a reserved flow of suspense moves between elegantly-photographed boardrooms and unglamorous points of scheming and surveillance in Hamburg, mostly free of bombastic chases or shootouts. Director Corbijn adds subtle devices that elevate the electricity in the atmosphere, such as the stressed echo of Bachmann's inhales and exhales while observing a mark, as well as sending Bachmann through mundane locations with visual interest -- angular office floors with pale lighting and bank offices with intricate wood grain walls -- that keep the eyes engaged. The plot itself, however, struggles to hold interest as a dramatic thriller, meandering whenever the focus falls on Issa Karpov's character and his evolving relationship with Annabel, as Rachel McAdams feels out of her depth as an illegal immigrant lawyer. At two hours, even with more opportunities for momentum, the pacing slumps.
The final rush of scenes in A Most Wanted Man rewards having patience in Corbijn's deliberate style, opening the door wide for Philip Seymour Hoffman's robustness to shine. Rarely will one find more intensity captured on the big-screen that hinged on the mere signing of a document , a collision of the themes and concerns introduced by Issa Karpov's arrival in Hamburg that funnels into a bleak resolution to the buzz he creates. More than that, the sequences push Hoffman's character into an explosive dramatic situation that proves to be both a challenging zenith for Gunther Bachmann's efforts and a brilliant exercise for the actor. A Most Wanted Man is all about moving pieces that continue to move despite the victories and failures that get individuals' hands dirty in the pursuit of safety, culminating into a potent, significant environment for Hoffman's indelible presence to be submerged in. While not as transformative as Capote or as persistently commanding as Dodd in The Master, the blend of gratification, fear, and disappointment surrounding Gunther Bachmann in the end is a strong cap-off to a phenomenal career.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 11/12/2014