Spy v. spy

Smoking gun.

Here’s a tightly wound, smart spy thriller set in Hamburg, Germany, where the scenery always looks cold and sterile and people are still allowed to smoke in bars. German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads a small, off-the-grid intelligence operation designed to root out terrorists. He’s a shrewd, intelligent man who utilizes patience and diplomacy when taking down a target, but pretty soon U.S. agencies are involved and so never mind those virtues. A Most Wanted Man explores the intricacies of fighting the war on terror and everything that can go wrong when agendas compete for the final word.

Gunther’s investigation focuses on a part-Chechin, part-Russian Muslim immigrant named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s escaped from a Russian prison and now seeks asylum in Germany. He’s the beneficiary of a large sum of money attained through nefarious means by Issa’s father, who was most definitely an Islamic extremist and all-around evil man. The question on everyone’s mind with regards to Issa seems to be: “But how far does the apple fall from the tree?” Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) shows up as a representative from the U.S. Embassy; they are very interested in Issa, what he plans to do with his father’s money and what it means for American security concerns. They want to make arrests and ask questions later, whereas Gunther—forever patient, reasoned and calculated—wants more time.

Holland filmmaker Anton Corbijn directs the picture. His previous work includes Control (2007) and The American (2010). Andrew Bovell adapted the screenplay from a John le Carré novel. His previous novels, The Constant Gardener and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, have both made their way onto the big screen.

Rachel McAdams plays Annabel Richter, a German social advocacy lawyer who’s been assigned to Issa’s case. She’s liberal, plucky and trusting. When she ends up getting pulled off her bicycle into a mysterious van with a hood pulled over her face, she takes the whole thing in stride. Never mind which agency is behind the kidnapping and why; she’s helping them spy on Issa now. Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) runs the bank where Issa’s father’s dirty money is hidden, and he too gets sucked into the fold. They make him bring a pen that is also a microphone into the business meeting. There’s a van outside with Gunther and his team sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups, listening in on headphones—you know the score.

If it seems as if there are a lot of characters to follow in this picture, you’re right. And still the film manages to get all the players’ competing motivations across without tangling itself up in confusion and obscurity. When Gunther either intuits or discovers through intelligence Annabel’s privileged background (wealthy parents, doing pro bono work for Muslims as a rebellion against her father), he’s showing off his brilliance. From Annabel’s unwavering reaction, we learn about her diligence and strength. There’s likely an attraction between Gunther and the American agent, but it’s unclear if the feeling is mutual and anyway there’s no time for romance. It’s a curious thing that in a film about spies and apprehending terrorists, there are no real villains—just people carrying out goals using what wits and resources they have.

In my earlier review of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s third-to-last film role in God’s Pocket, I mentioned that his character looked heavy and tired, and it’s the same here. His German accent sounds quiet and husky. I wanted to sit in his lap and put my ear up to his mouth to hear him better. The film doesn’t bog Gunther down with family concerns or romantic entanglements, but there’s a rich history implied simply in the way he carries himself. He’s a spy who’s let everything else slide, his health in particular. Gunther drinks bourbon and smokes too many cigarettes. When he chases a suspect through the city streets of Hamburg, we hear his labored breathing and get a sense of what he’s been through.

Actors don’t usually get to choose their last leading role. This isn’t Hoffman’s most glamorous turn, but it’s viciously honest. The fact that he still has the two Hunger Games movies left to go makes me feel a little depressed and defeated inside. I want him dead and buried already so we can properly mourn. It’s like how Orson Welles ended his illustrious career with a voiceover role in the 1986 animated Transformers movie. It’s weird.

A Most Wanted Man continues at the Wilma.

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