Review by-Jarrett Leahy
When suspected militant jihadist Issa Karpov shows up in Hamburg, Germany to claim his deceased father’s ill-gotten fortune, the intelligence community is put on high-alert. The director of German national security wants to detain this threat immediately. However, Gunther Bachmann, the leader of a covert anti-terrorism team, sees this as his opportunity to gain valuable information about the recent diversion of charity funds to various terrorist groups and the possible role a prominent Islamic lecturer and benefactor may play in these covert transactions. Despite objections from his superiors, Bachmann is given 72 hours to establish the true identity of this suspect and ascertain any information that may be pertinent to his ongoing investigation.
Based on a novel from famed author John le Carre (Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardner, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) A Most Wanted Man flawlessly entwines numerous storylines, creating an unnerving and exquisitely interwoven modern-day espionage thriller filled with a multitude of unexpected twists and turns. The star attraction of the film is the late Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. As I sat captivated by yet another of his first-rate portrayals, I found it impossible to escape the thought that this was one of our final chances to see how extraordinary an actor he was. Hoffman, in fact, is phenomenal, turning what would have been a solid spy thriller into one far more noteworthy. His character, Gunther Bachmann, is the head of a secret German anti-terrorism team charged with recruiting informants to spy and report on the goings-on in the German Islamic community. In this loathsome and dangerous world of ever-shifting allegiances, it’s through Hoffman’s masterful delivery that we trust this Bachmann character. Despite his personal foibles, this is a good man who truly believes in the importance of the work he and his team does and values the lives of the sources that trust him and his word. While it took a minute or two to get accustomed to the German accent, Hoffman remarkably does what he always managed to do, completely embody and disappear into his character. It was apparent right from the opening scenes this was his picture, as he set the precise tone for the film while everyone around him seemed to amiably play off his tenor and expertise.
The success of A Most Wanted Man can also be attributed to the film’s Dutch director, Anton Corbijn, a talent who I have little problem declaring one the most underrated filmmakers in the business today. Originally an accomplished still photographer, Corbijn broke into the industry in the 1990’s as a music documentarian, working with the likes of U2 and Depeche Mode. After his debut feature film, Control, became a moderate critical success, Corbijn showed off his true filmmaking gifts with his 2010 drama The American, an impeccably crafted masterwork that harkened back to legendary filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Pierre Melville. A very European-styled film with high tension, little dialogue, and extraordinary cinematography, The American suffered immensely from a botched marketing campaign as its distributors had no idea how to sell an art house film starring George Clooney.
In A Most Wanted Man, Corbijn is once again at the top of his game, bringing his photographer’s eye to capture haunting and hypnotizing visuals. Corbijn’s nighttime cinematography makes superb use of light and dark and is reminiscent of a Michael Mann film. Through the use bleak, harsh architecture, jarring camera angles, and cold blue hues, he creates an unsettling atmosphere during scenes involving and around the intelligence agency, as if offering the suggestion that someone is always watching. In contrast, many of the scenes involving the Islamic community have a very distinct yellowish tone. This clashing of blues and yellows is another way Corbijn plays off these two divergent societies and belief structures.
The standout among the film’s talented supporting cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams and Daniel Bruel, is Robin Wright who offers one of her most deliciously devious performances as C.I.A. agent Martha Sullivan. Wright does an exceptional job creating a character whose true motivations remain muddled throughout. I’m now afraid the nuanced subtlety Wright brought to make her character so elusive in the film will cause some Academy voters to miss how impressive her portrayal really is. I look forward to revisiting this film in the future in order to devote more attention to her cunningly sly performance.
With an avalanche of disposable entertainment all hailed as the best blockbuster one week only to be forgotten the next, it was a refreshing change to be offered a piece of cinema that requires true thought and an actual attention span. Sadly, A Most Wanted Man is one of the few remaining testimonials of the excellence of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s gift as an actor. A slow-burner with a frenetic climax, A Most Wanted Man is a skillfully crafted spy thriller that helps remind us how riveting this genre can be when done right.-JL