February 2 was a very sad day this year for two groups of people: Denver Bronco fans and film buffs. That was the day that we all learned that Phillip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his New York apartment of an apparent heroin overdose. That we will soon no longer be getting new performances from Hoffman is something many would rather not think about, but for now we can take some solace in the fact that he had four movies “in the can” at the time of his death. Unfortunately, two of those movies are Hunger Games sequels and one of them was a poorly received indie called God’s Pockets, so the film that will likely be viewed as his true swan song is the new John Le Carré adaptation from director Anton Corbijn called A Most Wanted Man.
A Most Wanted Man is set entirely in Hamburg Germany and populated by primarily German characters, it’s one of those movies that’s entirely in accented English but is ostensibly depicting people who are conversing in the local language. The central character is Günther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a spy who heads a quasi-legal taskforce within the German intelligence system that monitors the local Hamburg Muslim community. His latest case involved keeping tabs on a man named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Chechen man who has illegally entered the country for reasons that are not entirely clear. Suspicions are further fueled when it’s learned that Karpov is an heir to a large sum of money that had been left in a Hamburg bank account by his father, who was a figure in the Russian mafia, and the intelligence officials are worried that this money could get funneled into terrorism if Karpov’s intentions are not pure.
John Le Carré isn’t quite a literary brand on the level of a Stephen King or a Michael Creighton, but I do think people more or less know what to expect out of his brand of relatively realistic spy thrillers. One of my favorite films of the last ten years, The Constant Gardener, was based on one of his novels. But then so was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I didn’t really enjoy as much as many people did (I’ve been meaning to give it another watch though). In general his stories are very smart, seemingly very authentic to the realities of spycraft, and sometimes hard to keep track of, especially when you’ve been weaned on the modern brand of Hollywood over-exposition. This latest film is very much in that tradition and applies Le Carré’s take of spying to more contemporary concerns than Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy did. Specifically the film is about the rather conflicted feelings that emerge from the rather dubious act of spying on Muslim minorities within one’s own country.
The film’s protagonist is a thoughtful and sensitive, if rough around the edges, man who certainly doesn’t take his job lightly. We’ve seen cops like this before; chain smoking burnouts that never look overly comfortable in the suits they wear, people who’ve become somewhat disillusioned by the job they’ve been working for decades. Over the course of the film you get a pretty good idea of this man’s political philosophy and his nuanced views about the ethics of espionage, but otherwise he’s kind of kept at arm’s length. We get other perspectives as well: there’a a human rights lawyer played by Rachel McAdams who feels it her duty to be a protector of the voiceless and the more “results oriented” spies like an intelligence head played by Rainer Bock. Then there’s Tommy Brue, a banker played by Willem Dafoe who is involuntarily forced to cooperate with this investigation and gives the film a confused civilian perspective on the proceedings.
I don’t want to give the impression that this movie is nothing but political debates and introspection. This is a spy procedural and it does focus on the act of investigation above all. I will say that I was a little bit disappointed by the way director Anton Corbijn presents some of this material, especially given his stylish work on the under-appreciated George Clooney film The American. The visuals here are decidedly less impressive than it was in that film and his general mode of storytelling is more conventional. I’d also say he generally did less behind the camera to bring the material to life than Fernando Meirelles and Tomas Alfredson did when making the Le Carré adaptations I cited earlier. None of this is to say that Corbijn’s work here is at all incompetent or even below average, but I also wouldn’t call it any kind of breakthrough. If anything I’d say that he was trying to stay out of the way of the material and while the material is indeed interesting I also don’t think it would have hurt to try punching it up a bit.
I suppose this leads me back to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose tragic passing I elegized at the opening of this review. Hoffman is well cast in his role, and given that he was an insanely reliable talent it should be no surprise that this performance is up to his usual high standards. It is not, however, a wildly exceptional swan song along the lines of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. I also wouldn’t say that the movie in general is what you’d call “exceptional.” Rather, I’d say that is a movie that mostly gets by by being what Larry David would call “pri-tay, pri-tay, pretty good.” It is however a valuble commodity this time of year. Artistically speaking we’re living in juvenile times and movies have become increasingly silly, we need counter-programing like this that’s made for and by adults. We need it so bad that it can sometimes be easy to over-react to solid movies like A Most Wanted Man and make them into something they’re not simply because they don’t insult our intelligence. Still, pri-tay good.
***1/2 out of four