Silver Screen: A Most Wanted Man ***1/2
When the last work of a great actor is posthumously released, that final film almost inevitably becomes difficult to view outside the context of curtain call/swan song/candlelight vigil. The grimly ironic twist is that the performer, previously renowned for an ability to disappear into a role, suddenly cannot escape the distraction of our own awareness.
In fairness to the audience, some serious psychological contortions are required to navigate the complex disjunction of suspending disbelief to watch a fictional film featuring a character who seems so very alive played by an actor we know to be dead.
Rarely has this phenomenon been more pronounced than in Anton Corbijn’s deft adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel A Most Wanted Man. It’s not technically the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final appearance— he’ll appear as part of the large ensemble in the final installments of The Hunger Games series— but it’s his last starring role, and he utterly dominates the film.
Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann, a weary spy working for a black-ops counterterrorist agency in the port city of Hamburg. The September 11 attacks were largely plotted and coordinated from Hamburg, and Bachmann’s shadowy crew was established to make sure the multicultural city with its bustling, open port never again becomes the nexus of international terrorism.
As such, Bachmann, whose physically disheveled state seems like a consequence of his perpetual state of vigilance, quickly becomes aware of the presence of Issa Karpov, a devout Muslim from Chechnya, a breakaway state from the former Soviet Union. Issa’s dark family history has radicalized him, and his secretive arrival in Hamburg rings alarm bells throughout the international intelligence community. Issa goes into hiding with a sympathetic family and enlists the aid of an out-of-her-depth lawyer (Rachel McAdams), unaware that he’s being monitored. While other foreign operatives, including an inscrutable American agent (Robin Wright), yearn to snap Issa up for interrogation, Bachmann wants to leave him free long enough to prove a connection between insurgent groups and wealthy Muslim businessman and philanthropist Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who Bachmann believes is secretly funding terrorist operations around the globe.
Le Carré’s spy stories are pretty much the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond power-fantasy escapism. It’s not just that le Carré’s realist heroes lack laser-beam pens and entendre-laden sexpot rendezvous. They’re hemmed in by bureaucracy, at the mercy of political expediency, and claustrophobically confined by overlapping yet often-contradictory truths. It’s tough to imagine anybody daydreaming about living a day in the life of their confusing, conflicted, paper-pushing existence.
Bachmann is one of le Carré’s most forceful and compelling protagonists. Maybe he does have a streak of 007 in him, with his dedication to daydrinking and an insistence on doing things his way. Most of the credit for this fascinating character goes to Hoffman’s titanic performance, which is both domineering and understated. Bachmann moves through Hamburg as though he exists in some vastly more interesting, if no more glamorous parallel universe— which, as a spy, he does in a sense. He pushes his portliness out in front of him like a self-guided wrecking ball and speaks with a distinctive, slurred accent that sets him apart from everyone else, Germans and expats alike. He almost never makes eye contact, not because he’s intimidated, but because he always seems to be thinking about three other things simultaneously, and the conversation he’s engaged in is occupying only a certain percentage of his attention. But all his brashness is undercut by a twist of self-doubt— vague suggestions of something that went awry in Beirut— and the nagging uncertainty of whether he’s playing or being played.
Le Carré’s plots often lend themselves more to the novels he writes than their big-screen adaptations. The barrage of names, oblique references, coded dialogue, and shifting allegiances can render them simultaneously slow and difficult to keep track of. Le Carré might in fact be the king of movies that make you feel dumb while whispering to your seatmate, “Wait, why is he trying to kill that guy? I thought they were on the same side!”
A Most Wanted Man turns out to be pretty comprehensible without over-explaining itself, nowhere near as confounding as the intriguing but maddening head-scratcher Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While that film rose and fell with lead actor Gary Oldman’s performance, A Most Wanted Man is dependent almost entirely on Hoffman. Interest wavers when he’s not onscreen, which, thankfully, is rare. It’s an absolute powerhouse acting turn, so very good that it even keeps the ghost of Hoffman at bay. That he could so completely lose himself even in this last starring performance is a final testament to the true magnitude of his abilities.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.