A Most Wanted Man is apparently the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film performance (although the next Hunger Games movies is still on its way), and certainly in it he doesn’t look at all well. I have no idea how much of that is acting and how much (if any) is actually failing health, but from a film performance point of view it doesn’t matter, because Hoffman does a solid and praiseworthy job playing Günther Bachmann, the head of a small group of investigators operating out of Hamburg, where the 9-11 attacks were apparently planned, charged with the task of making sure that such a thing never happens again in that city. When they become aware of the illegal arrival of a suspicious Chechen with a violent past, they see an opportunity to take down a respectable Muslim statesman who is secretly laundering money to terrorist organizations.
This involves first detaining and then ingratiating themselves with the young migrants lawyer (or “social worker for terrorists” as she is accused of being), and then using her to win the trust of the Chechen himself. At the same time, Bachmann must keep the rest of the international law-enforcement community from pulling the rug from under his feet, jumping the gun and just arresting the guy. All this adds up to one of the smartest and most honest political thrillers I’ve ever seen.
When I say “honest”, I don’t mean necessarily “most accurate”, as I have no real idea how real-life espionage works. But what I mean is that this is a film that earns its thrills honestly. There is pretty much a complete absence of contrivances, coincidences, or conveniences in the story. There are no unbelievable but cool plot twists, no one is suddenly revealed to be a traitor, no one suddenly falls dead from an unexpected sniper bullet, no one brutally and cold-bloodedly murders anyone just to show how tough or evil they are. In fact, the sheer number of things that we are used to from political thrillers movies that don’t happen here is staggering. Instead, this is a movie that fills its running time with slow, methodical investigation and unfortunately necessary politics. Nicely, the movie doesn’t telegraph all its information up front, keeping the viewer engaged with the action by keeping just outside of fully understanding Bachmann’s process. So the end result is far from boring. Indeed, the climax of the movie includes the most tense scene I have ever viewed which is primarily built around whether or not a guy is going to sign a particular set of papers.
Philip Seymour Hoffman of course anchors the film, but the rest of the cast also fill it with strong low-key performances. The only other actors that I am familiar with are Rachel McAdams, who plays the lawyer, Willem Dafoe, who plays a banker involved in the whole situation, and Robin Wright, who plays Bachmann’s CIA contact whose help he enlists to try to manage all the other law-enforcement organizations he has to contend with. All of them do good well, especially McAdams. The movie is based on a novel by celebrated author John le Carre, and is directed by Dutch director Anton Corbijn, whose other work I am unfamiliar with.
Overall, it’s a very strong film – one of the best I’ve seen for a while. It’s not the tone or tempo you want to see in every movie you check out, but it’s good to see one every once in a while that it’s like this.
Four faces instead of five, because maybe some would be put off by the film’s methodical tempo?