“A Most Wanted Man” is one of the best espionage thrillers ever, it is that good. If Philip Seymour Hoffman had to leave us way before his time, then thankfully “A Most Wanted Man” gives him the opportunity to showcase all of his acting talent in one terrific film.
Directed by Anton Corbijn with screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on John le Carré’s novel, “A Most Wanted Man” is set in present day Hamburg, Germany. The film’s prologue tells us that the man responsible for the September 11 attacks, Mohammed Atta, did much of his planning with his collaborators in Hamburg, and the country wants to be sure that they are never responsible for anything like that again. It’s in this scenario that we’re introduced to Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Russian-Chechen who was tortured, abused and beaten in both Russian and Chechen prisons. He’s seeking refuge in Hamburg in the home of friends—a Muslim mother and son. Although his father beat him as a child, he also left him millions in Euros, which Karpov wants to claim so he can do something charitable with that inheritance. His friends put him in touch with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an idealistic young lawyer who agrees to help him. Against this backdrop we meet Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who leads a German secret anti-terrorism team that tries to develop sources in the Muslim community that will lead them to high-level terrorist suspects. Bachmann prefers to work quietly, looking at the big picture, building a case that will hold up for the long-term. His group infiltrates groups and families, going directly to their sources. His approach, “allows a minnow to catch a barracuda.” This philosophy runs counter to that of the Hamburg intelligence head, Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who wants to go for the big arrest immediately, consequences be damned. Karpov has been identified as a jihadist and potential terrorist and unbeknown to him, his moves are being monitored by Bachmann’s group. With the cooperation of Richter and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose bank controls Karpov’s funds, Bachmann puts an elaborate plan in motion which he believes will lead him to a much bigger fish—Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi ), a renowned and respected Muslim philanthropist who Bachmann’s team believe is secretly backing terrorist operations.
“A Most Wanted Man’s” international cast is low-key, but supremely talented. Nina Hoss is terrific as Irna Frey, Bachmann’s team colleague. Her rapport and chemistry with Hoffman is off the charts. Rachel McAdams is very believable as Karpov’s German lawyer. Robin Wright is fabulously unreadable as CIA operative Martha Sullivan working with Bachmann on his plan. Willem Dafoe seems right at home playing a German banker with conflicting allegiances. Dieter Mohr does an outstanding job as the man-in-charge you love to hate. Grigoriy Dobrygin is absolutely fantastic as the tortured soul, both physically and emotionally, seeking peace in Hamburg. It’s Karpov’s plight which propels the film forward, and Dobrygin is great in taking us through his journey.
No matter how wonderful the cast is, ultimately this movie belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, and that would be the case even if he was still alive. His portrayal of Günther Bachmann is simply astounding. Pudgy, disheveled, hard-drinking and world-weary, Hoffman’s Bachmann is a man who has little in life other than his job, or as Martha Sullivan puts it in one key scene, “making the world a safer place.” As amazing as he is throughout the entire movie, Hoffman’s final five minutes in “A Most Wanted Man” is a one-man master class in acting. It cannot be said enough how remarkable he is in this film.
“A Most Wanted Man” does a tremendous job in showcasing the underbelly of the spy’s world and just how unglamorous it is. A lot of risk, going by one’s gut and planning—some conflicting paths—go into thwarting unspeakable acts of terrorism. “A Most Wanted Man’s” plot builds slowly and steadily until by the movie’s last 20 minutes or so, you are at the edge of your seat waiting for what will happen next. If you look at your watch, it’s only to determine how much time is left for something to go wrong…or not. This is just one hell of a great movie.