A film review by Craig J. Koban September 13, 2014

 Rank: #9


2014, R, 121 mins.


Philip Seymour Hoffman as Günther Bachmann  /  Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter  /  Robin Wright as Martha Sullivan  /  Daniel Brühl as Max  /  Willem Dafoe as Tommy Brue  /  Grigoriy Dobrygin as Issa Karpov  /  Nina Hoss as Erna Frey  

Directed by Anton Corbijn  /  Screenplay by Andrew Bovell  /  Based on the novel by John le Carré

I’m a real sucker for a good espionage thriller with real world ties.  This makes it all the more easy for me to fall hard for spy game films like A MOST WANTED MAN, which manages to fully and triumphantly elevate itself far above the recent crop of similar genre films.  

What’s so intrinsically intoxicating about Anton Corbijn’s (THE AMERICAN) film is in how well it captures the grungier and aspects of covert life.  The film is based on the 2008 book of the same name by John le Carre, who has for decades specialized in penning crackerjack page-turners about working class spies that are about as far away from the classic and elegant James Bondian mould as they come.  Le Carre also wrote the book that was adapted into the BBC miniseries TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (and subsequent film adaptation) and what he does best is immerse us in the unglamorous minutia of these men and women that work in the intelligence gathering field.  A MOST WANTED MAN is no exception. 

Better yet, A MOST WANTED MAN carves out an endlessly involving and bitterly harsh portrait of our post-9/11 world, especially for how government agencies from different nations are forced to adapt to waging their receptive wars on terror, which often includes conflicting ideologies and even more divergent methods.  Most compellingly, A MOST WANTED MAN is not a terrorism thriller from the American perspective, but rather with a European flavor and feel.  The late and great Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, an intelligence expert that works in Hamburg, Germany.  Since Germany was the epicenter home base for many of the 9/11 hijackers, men like him and his kind have been under harsh scrutiny ever since.  You can feel the great burden of guilt and sense of responsibility for his nation’s political foul-ups: Bachmann looks like he has not slept in nearly a decade and genuinely looks uncomfortable under his own skin.  Yet, despite his unquestionable slobby façade lurks a cunning man of action.  He simply will not rest until he and his team gets the results they need to stop threats that are presented to them. 



The problem with Bachmann and his comrades in arms is that the landscape by which covert people like them can operate in Germany has changed so frequently, and often not for their benefit.  Since his own government has such a strict by-the-book stranglehold on Bachmann’s operation, he and his allies often have to secretly work outside of the books, and with very other little resources at their disposable.  Realizing this, Bachmann is forced to use his cagey wits and patience to nab his high reward targets, even if it means taking an arduously slow and less direct approach to apprehend them.  This, of course, puts him in direct conflict with US intelligence, who would rather hastily nab suspects first and ask questions a distant to prevent any future hardships. 

The potential motherload of all terrorist suspects comes to Bachmann’s attention in the form of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Russian man that’s half-Chechen, half-Muslin, the latter trait that always seems to raise a red flag in Bachmann’s world.  Karpov’s situation is made all the more suspicious by the fact that he has smuggled his way illegally into Hamburg…but he wishes to seek asylum…or does he?  His father was an infamously vile man with a massive fortune that will eventually be left to Karpov…but will the money be distributed to possible terrorist cells or be used for far more noble purposes?  Bachmann knows that – initially at least – the most important thing to discover is why Karpov truly wants asylum in Germany.  American intelligence (led by a very determined bureaucrat, played well by Robin Wright) feels otherwise.  They’d rather not wait to discover what Bachmann uncovers and instead wishes to nab Karpov right from the get-go.  

The fundamentally intriguing hook to A MOST WANTED MAN is the simple questions it poses on viewers: Is Karpov really a monetary channel into the terrorist world or is he just a man that wants to segregate himself from his father’s villainy?  Initially, it seems like the latter, as he becomes befriended by human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) to help give him legal asylum and get him his father’s money from a protected German bank, overseen by Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe).  But…again…are Karpov’s (and, for that matter, Richter’s) motives pure?  The screenplay by Andrew Bovell does a remarkable job of juggling between all of the respective characters and focal points of interest without things becoming overly convoluted or befuddling.   It’s also noteworthy for how it never once manages to overly telegraph or tip off viewers as to Karpov’s true nature; it leaves you trying to fill in the narrative blanks yourself without telling you precisely where the film is going, which ultimately paces great trust in audiences in an age when so many thrillers don’t. 

A MOST WANTED MAN also manages to drum up unrelenting tension and a sense of impeding dread in the most low key ways.  This is not a thriller with a high quotient of action, per se, and this may keep many viewers at an unflattering distance throughout.  Yet, the film’s slow-burn effect is precisely what’s required to emulate the methodical approach by which Bachmann and his team gradually assemble evidence, weigh in all of the facts, and arrive at conclusions.  A MOST WANTED MAN is more about all of the nagging barriers and roadblocks – political, physical and emotional – that often stymie intelligence agents in getting to the truth.  It’s also a highly rare breed of spy thriller that is not wholly enamored with its characters, nor places them on an altar of instant hero worship.  This is a bitterly cold and calculating film that examines its warts and all spy personas with a real detachment.  

Obviously, something needs to be said of this film starring Hoffman, as the actor passed away back in February after production was completed.  The thought of the American actor playing an intelligence operative with a German accent initially left a lukewarm feeling in me as to its necessity (were there no good German actors available?), but Hoffman does such a masterful job of immersing himself in Bachmann that you very quickly ignore such logical queries.  This might represent Hoffman at his roughest looking of his career (he looks more than a bit bloated and fatigued throughout), yet it all lends a level of verisimilitude to his performance.  Not only is Hoffman’s German dialect spot on, but he also nails the sense of world-weariness and moral uncertainty that Bachmann endlessly resides in.  A lesser film would have cast a granite jawed leading man to lead the charge, but Hoffman’s atypical casting here helps ground the world that A MOST WANTED MAN is trying to relay.  This might be the most keenly understated and brilliantly modulate performance of Hoffman’s career; he’s quietly mesmerizing in it. 

Hoffman gets solid turns from his supporting cast as well, especially from McAdams, who plays a character that’s far more complicated than initially revealed.  I also admired Grigoriy Dobrygin’s extremely tricky performance as Karpov, who never once manages to clue us in as to his character's real intentions (it’s also kind of miraculous that a host of actors from multiple countries playing characters that are not of their nationality come off as credibly as they do here).  It could be argued that the film’s final climax is somewhat preordained, but it’s the whole enthralling journey that leads up to its finale that helps sell A MOST WANTED MAN as an inordinately intelligent, subtly and deftly directed, and broodingly atmospheric and effective spy thriller that fosters incredible tension throughout.  This is one of the finer post-9/11 procedurals that I’ve seen and one that maximizes undulating suspense in some highly unlikely and uncommon ways.  

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