Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘A Most Wanted Man’
Before I make a couple of points about ‘A Most Wanted Man’, a minor observation about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character Günther Bachmann’s chain smoking and drinking in the film. There is such urgent apathy to the way he reflexively smokes and drinks that perhaps for the first time while watching a film I felt like saying it out aloud to a character, “Please stop. I beg you to stop.” My wanting to say that was as much a tribute to Hoffman’s performance as it was out of the melancholic knowledge—in hindsight, of course—that one was watching an actor not too far from his death real life. A lot of actors manage to capture the cruel delights of smoking but I think none does with such destructive albeit passing relish as Hoffman. So that’s that.
Contrary to many reviews, I found director Anton Corbijn’s earlier film ‘The American’ with George Clooney as a contract assassin rather compelling. So there was that visual style reference in my mind coupled with an acute awareness about ‘A Most Wanted Man’s creator John le Carré’s reputation as an absolute master of deeply thoughtful espionage thrillers. On both fronts, I came out satisfied. Add to that Hoffman’s unsettling ability to radiate intelligent intensity as an actor and you have a real treat. In his brilliant tribute to Hoffman in The New York Times, le Carré had said this about the late actor: “In retrospect, nothing of that kind surprised me about Philip, because his intuition was luminous from the instant you met him. So was his intelligence. A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours; or if the mood took him, hugged you to him like a big, pudgy schoolboy, then stood and beamed at you while he took stock of the effect.”
All of what le Carré says about Hoffman was in evidence throughout the film. As a middle-aged German intelligence officer in the midst of the labyrinthine world of Islamic terrorism, Hoffman does such an immersive job that you feel as if he may not have done anything else in his career. In almost any recent role that Hoffman did he had that nervy, edgy earnestness that suggested an actor both in complete control of and total surrender to his craft. “A Most Wanted Man’ is, of course, a carrier of le Carré’s worldview, in particular of the devious and deceitful conduct of Western, really American, intelligence post-9/11. Hoffman’s Bachmann has a more nuanced, even if it is eventually partisan, take on the players who plot terrorism. Like all his novels and films, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ presumes a certain level of intelligence and attention span among its readers and viewers. He steadfastly refuses to spoon-feed the elementary. Corbijn, whose ‘The American’ was not nearly as conversational, does an effective job of capturing le Carré’s often perspective-heavy exchanges.
Unlike ‘The American, which after watching you may want to head for the charming Italian village where it was shot, the Hamburg of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is a place you would want to give the go by to. The director and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme make sure that Hamburg does not come across as touristy pretty because its underlying mood is anything but touristy and pretty. Except for a few scenes such as the one when the young human rights lawyer Annabel Richter played by Rachel McAdams takes the half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim character Issa Karpov played by Grigoriy Dobrygin to the terrace of her brother’s apartment where the sun is setting, the feel of almost the entire film is wet, blue/gray and brooding. It is not a happy world that the novel portrays and certainly not a happy world that Corbijn conveys either.
The broad story is about how after 9/11, Hamburg, where Mohammad Atta and others plotted the New York and Washington attacks 2001, has become a playground for shadowy and often morally ambiguous intelligence operatives track down potential planners of terror plots. Karpov, of course, fits that stereotype in the face of it. However, he is anything but. At some level, le Carré tries to give him the austerities of Islam as he understands it. You also have characters such as Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), an Islamic scholar and apparent humanitarian who uses some of his charities to divert funds to Islamic extremist groups.
Corbijn manages to tease high quality performances out of his entire cast. Of course, Hoffman elevates his to a whole new level but even William Dafoe as a shady banker is outstanding in many scenes. Dobrygin as a traumatized Russian-Chechen refugee in Hamburg and McAdams as his lawyer produce highly commendable performances. That it was Hoffman’s last film was something I managed to keep out of my thinking while watching it. Notwithstanding, I was aware of le Carré’s fine astute observation in his Times tribute that said, “Like Chatterton, he went seven times round the moon to your one, and every time he set off, you were never sure he’d come back, which is what I believe somebody said about the German poet Hölderlin: Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him. And if that sounds like wisdom after the event, it isn’t. Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it.”
It may not be a great film but ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is a most watchable film. If you get the sense that, like in ‘The American’, Corbijn is not quite getting to the heart of it, you have to conclude that that’s just the way he does his films.