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Movie review: Philip Seymour Hoffman fuels the slow burn of 'A Most Wanted Man'

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A Most Wanted Man

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"A Most Wanted Man"-- 4 stars

In viewing his intimate characterization and leading role in the John le Carre-inspired "A Most Wanted Man," which is finally hitting theaters after success at the Sundance and Moscow Film Festivals, this is the time to say goodbye to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sure, he's a key presence in the high-profile split 2014 and 2015 films covering the final "Mockingjay" chapter of "The Hunger Games" franchise, but that series is a glorified paycheck for Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Hollywood Star. "A Most Wanted Man" is all about Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Great Actor. Let's reflect for a bit.

My first concrete memory of Hoffman was his hilarious Dusty sidekick part from "Twister" when I was a high schooler. Little did I know then, I already should have noticed him in "Scent of a Woman," "The Getaway," and "Nobody's Fool" before that. Perpetrating the mainstream in the late 90's, his filmography since is richly filled with excellent and wide-ranging supporting work in titles like "Boogie Nights," "The Big Lebowski," "Almost Famous," and dozens of others. He got his well-deserved praise as a lead with his Best Actor Academy Award win for "Capote," which will go down as his greatest achievement. My personal favorites were his music mentor from "Almost Famous," his puffed-up coil of pissing and moaning in "Charlie Wilson's War," and the most intense action movie villain I've ever seen from "Mission: Impossible III." For me, though, he'll always be Dusty from "Twister."

Make no mistake. Hoffman was the best chameleon of this era. The man could play anything from comedy to drama, blockbusters to independent films. His roles, even when smaller than the lead, were almost always memorable components. Hoffman invested and dissolved into every role, no matter how common, odd, dark, conflicted, or weird it seemed. In his final leading role in "A Most Wanted Man," Hoffman shows us one final tool from his arsenal.

The setting is an unspecified year in the early 2000's, but one clearly in the post-9/11 world of intelligence. Philip plays Gunther Bachmann, a German spy stationed in Hamburg. He's a chain smoking, Scotch-swilling schlub on the outside, but a genius thinker on the inside and a master of the game. He's working on a lower level than his past reputation, due to a failed mission in Beirut years prior that occurred on his watch. That demotion and mistake has made him cagier and less trusting of his superiors and other outside organizations that claim collaboration. Gunther leads a small, dedicated team (composed of German actors Daniel Bruhl and Nina Hoss) and relies on field work and information gathered from highly-placed inside informant sources.

True to real history outside of this fictional spy novel adaptation, Hamburg was indeed the homebase for the Al-Qaeda cell that planned the 9/11 attacks. "A Most Wanted Man" inhabits a city that has since become marked/smeared as a hot spot with its large Muslim population of nearly 200,000. A drifting Chechen refugee named Issa Karpov (young Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin) has arrived in Hamburg and pinged on Gunther's radar. His team has been long investigating a wealthy Muslim dignitary and philanthropist named Dr. Faisal Abdullah and his possible money laundering ties to terrorist organizations. Gunther has enlisted Abdullah's own son (newcomer Mendi Dehbi) as an informant. Karpov is the son of a noted deceased terrorist and represents a new wrinkle to the possible growing threat.

Complications in terms of motives and intentions become cloudier when Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a human rights lawyer, in a move not indicative of a terrorist. Karpov enlists her help to arrange a meeting with a local bank owner named Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe) to claim his father's ill-gotten fortune that is worth millions. With that alarming amount of money in play, Karpov's actions now bring in Gunther's superiors and the attention of other intelligence agencies, including American CIA observer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). With Abdullah still representing the big fish, this case is quickly becoming too big for Gunther, his team, and his failed reputation to not get more invasive government involvement.

"A Most Wanted Man" was filmed completely in Hamburg and is directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn, last seen by audiences turning the enigmatic George Clooney into a cold assassin on the lamb in "The American" from 2010. I will readily admit that "The American" left me wanting four years ago as it completely sapped Clooney's signature charisma. I understood the very European differences and challenges that were sought for substance, style, scope, and detail by Corbijn, but the film was too quiet and slow-burn for what it was trying to be. Minimal and nuanced is a tough sell without great story material that can evoke its own intrigue.

Like Clooney in "The American," Philip Seymour Hoffman tackles foreign film sensibilities and locks the Hollywood factor out of this performance. More often than not, we tend to remember Hoffman for his jovial and verbose flamboyance in so many movies like "The Master" and "Charlie Wilson's War." He dials the volume and pitch way way down for "A Most Wanted Man." He wears the world-weary and steely character traits of Gunther masterfully and with hidden fanfare. I knew the man could do low-key, but this was a new level for him and, as aforementioned, is a surprise final tool from his acting arsenal. Rachel McAdams follows suit with her least luminous role to date as well. Virtual newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin also gives a standout performance as the man in the surveillance crosshairs.

This is still a bit of a tough sell. I think there's a large audience that wants explosions and sexiness with their spy thrillers. Some are going to call all of this quiet work boring and maybe even somber, matching some of the mainstream thoughts on other John le Carre film adaptations like "The Tailor of Panama," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Constant Gardner," and "The Russia House." Exciting or not, the man writes incredibly good thrillers. I see past the need for action and love that the devil is in the details. The slow burn factor works in "A Most Wanted Man" with compelling and steadily increasing story developments that maintain your investment.

"The American" didn't have sufficient storytelling clout, but "A Most Wanted Man" most certainly does with the le Carre source material. This story is a brilliant web of gray area characters, trust and distrust, and post-9/11 ramifications (see the lessons below). The non-heroic, methodical, and very political landscapes created by the former MI5 and MI6 spy-turned-author suit Corbijn's filmmaking style much better. He was the right director with the right material this time around. This is where minimal and nuanced fit the narrative needs of the story. As le Carre will attest, the real spy world is not James Bond and Jason Bourne. It's ordinary pencil-pushers and intellectuals like Gunther Bachmann working on less notable and nondescript playing fields.

Lesson #1: The intelligence landscape in a post-9/11 worlds-- Beneath the fictional elements of "A Most Wanted Man," we see what the spy game has become since 2001 (but before the revealed secrets of Edward Snowden this decade). Compare this with the Cold War setting of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and you will see stark similarities and differences. The technology has changed as much as the bureaucracy and oversight, and so have the targeted demographics. What hasn't changed is the continued importance of human resources. All the surveillance gadgetry and data analysis in the world still can't beat an inside source and first-hand information. That's what spies like Gunther do best.

Lesson #2: Difficulties between cooperating organizations-- A large collection of the threads making up this film's spy web surround the involvement of multiple spy agencies. They say they are all on the same team and playing for the same reasons. It's growing to become too many cooks in the kitchen and Gunther knows it. There's a volatile mix between rivals competing for collars and credit, rampantly different agenda goals, and the eschewing of responsibility when something doesn't work. In the spy game, most of your victories don't make headlines, but all of your failures do.

Lesson #3: The ever-shifting balance between trust and distrust-- The moral bottom line of this movie is rooted in trust and distrust among the many characters. Karpov comes to Hamburg looking for someone to listen him and trust. He finds that in Richter. Sullivan urges Gunther share information and sources, Gunther doesn't extend anything due to the inherent distrust he's had in authority since his failed mission and demotion. Gunther pleads with and uses Abdullah's son to stay on his side despite the dilemma of lying to his own father. The cooperation of characters that get brought deeper into the sting operation as the plot thickens hinges on Gunther earning their trust. All of this give and take occurs within an intelligence community that never seems to trust anyone, making actual trust the greatest commodity and leverage.

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