“It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”
In Hamburg, Germany, the city where the September 11th attacks were planned, Günter Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) leads a secret, off-the-books anti-terrorism operation. His strategy is to assimilate his team with the Islamic community, establishing contacts (the minnows) that can lead him local associates of Al-Qaeda (the barracudas) – people that are in contact with the perpertrators of global terrorism (the sharks).
His current obsession is with Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) – esteemed Muslim professor and benefactor to a number of pro-Islamic charities. Günter believes while he is practicing his philanthropy, Abdullah is passing a cut of the money through an Al-Qaeda front. While developing his case, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) shows up in Hamburg after fleeing Russia where he was imprisoned. Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a dedicated attorney for a human rights collective, to assist him in claiming a massive inheritance with the help of a banker (Willem Dafoe) whose bank deals with dirty money. Günter tracks both Karpov and Abdullah, believing together they will reveal a high priority terrorist, but his team faces constant pressure from German and U.S. intelligence to bring the men in to custody. An American agent (Robin Wright) gives Günter 72 hours to freely follow his leads.
Audiences packed theaters all weekend to catch Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. Hoffman was considered by many to be one of the very best working actors when his career was cut short in February of 2014. Since, “A Most Wanted Man” has taken on a new life as a last chance to say goodbye to the actor. While 2012’s “The Master” will no doubt be referred to as Hoffman’s final prolific performance, “Wanted Man” is worth seeing beyond its unfortunate circumstance.
Director Anton Corbijn (“The American”) adapts John le Carré’s (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) 2008 old-school espionage novel set in a modern time. Politically, the post-9/11 climate impacts the work Günter is able to carry out. He’s stationed in Hamburg after his entire network was blown in an operation in Beirut. Now, Günter – smoking and drinking constantly, smiling occasionally – has a lot to prove as he pursues leads and gathers intelligence. Wiretapping, intelligence drops and back-alley meetings between powerful men all add to the throwback spin on the political thriller genre that harkens back to Cold War paranoia.
Critics of Corbijn’s style often want him to insert more action, but we see again and again that these are the least interesting scenes he generates. 2010’s “The American” took a lot of flak for a mismanaged campaign that touted the film as an action-thriller when it was, in actuality, a simmering character study. Interestingly, the few moments of sustained action are the worst in “The American” – so is that alternate cut one we really want? In “A Most Wanted Man,” Corbijn insists on inserting a couple of foot chases for no real reason beyond offering something quicker paced for the audience. But he constructs them with utter cliché to the point of mild offense. One involves a train-car exchange; another is routed through a loud, strobe-lit nightclub.
It’s the intelligent, challenging dialogue that offers the most rewarding content in the film. Nearly every interaction is heavy with tension and ulterior motives. This is Hoffman’s showcase, but he bounces off Robin Wright in some of the most successful scenes. As an ambassador from the CIA, she holds the U.S.’s interests in mind, but the two get along well enough to suggest a sort of unspoken and thoroughly ignored romance.
Dobrygin does well with his English-language breakout as Karpov – a destabilized man hiding from his own country and sitting on a large lump of inheritance money – but he is given an overly-complicated backstory that stands as a barrier against any real connection to his character.
Corbijn seems to be operating under a “more is better” strategy, and packs these two hours with a great number of scenes. Yet with all of this coverage, he manages to cut Daniel Brühl’s (“Rush,” “The Fifth Estate”) role in the film into a wordless one. Many scenes are interesting (more interesting than the typical unintelligible chatter found in these types of films, anyway), but the film suffers nonetheless from the over-complexity of plot that plague even the best of the genre. It’s not so much difficult to follow as it is a chore to. “Now who’s this guy again?” is the sort of thing that comes up when you take on this many characters and subplots in a quickly-moving film.
As for the look of the film, you know the deal – desaturated, bleak urban day-time scenes and rich, street-lit nights. It all generates a good amount of old-fashioned spy intrigue, but a bit of consistency would go a long way in pinning down who Günter is. If his character as it’s written on the page is a bit unclear, Hoffman’s portrayal is clear as day. The sloppy appearance, gruff German accent, and despairing sense of dedication to a morbid cause all fit right in line with Hoffman’s catalogue. Günter is not the biggest or best character the actor has portrayed, but it’s a brilliant performance nonetheless in its plain naturalness. Every role Hoffman touches is defined by his spirit, which makes this vice-reliant, downward-sliding character that much harder to watch.Continue Reading Issue #13
July 25, 2014
2 hr. 1 min.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Daniel Brühl, Mehdi Dehbi, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Dainer Bock, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit