Anton Corbijn's underappreciated The American is a work of remarkable precision – it's the rare movie in which every single shot seems to have been carefully considered. The film's subtle, quiet approach to a genre which tends to lean heavily on cheap thrills may have disappointed many moviegoers, but those who were able to get on the movie's wavelength were treated to an exquisite piece of cinema. At times it felt like a terrific John le Carre story, albeit one le Carre had nothing to do with. As such, it was only natural that Corbijn's next film would be a real le Carre flick: an adaptation of the 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man. Corbijn's latest doesn't quite achieve the clockwork precision of his previous flick, but it's nonetheless a fine, well-crafted spy movie which benefits considerably from a terrific lead performance and a knockout ending.
Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York) is a German intelligence agent running a secret anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg. It isn't really an assignment worthy of his talents at this point in his career, but a failed mission in Beirut sealed his professional fate. Even so, the work he does is challenging and complicated. Recently, he's been tasked with investigating an immigrant named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin, Black Sea), who has been labeled by the German government as a militant jihadist. He's also keeping a watchful eye on the activities of Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi, The Kite Runner), a well-respected philanthropist who may be secretly funneling money to terrorist organizations. Gunther wants to get to the truth of the matter before acting on his suspicions, but his superiors are eager for quick, decisive action. He's also being carefully observed by CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright, House of Cards), who may or may not be a trustworthy ally. A pair of additional figures complicate matters further: a good-hearted attorney (Rachel McAdams, True Detective) who is convinced of Karpov's innocence, and a diplomatic banker (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man) tasked with determining whether Karpov is the rightful heir to a massive fortune.
As is often the case in le Carre stories, we spend a considerable amount of time watching and waiting. The veteran writer depicts the world of undercover intelligence as it (presumably) is rather than as we want it to be; a world of desperately unhip, pencil-pushing workaholics doing their best to accomplish even the most insignificant of tasks while cautiously working their way through a mountain of red tape. While most movies attempts to wring thrills out of gunfights or car chases, this one is so understated that its most suspenseful sequence involves watching a man sign documents. Those who are inclined to appreciate this sort of thing (and I'll freely admit that I'm a le Carre devotee) will find themselves completely absorbed. Those looking for a conventional thriller will be bored.
As le Carre adaptations go, this one isn't quite at the top of the pile. It's easy to admire, but doesn't reach out and grab you as consistently as films like The Constant Gardener and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. However, that's largely due to the construction of the story, which is a long, slow, methodical build-up to an ending which... well, how do I put this? The ending IS the movie. I can't reveal what happens, but I can reveal that it's perfectly executed and delivers a startling emotional jolt. Honestly, it's probably the best ending I've seen this year. Is that enough to make the film truly great? No. Maybe. Yes.
Then we have the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. I'm not going to pretend that A Most Wanted Man is the greatest performance of his career, but there are moments when it feels like it is. There are moments when a lot of Hoffman performances feel that way. Like so many other Hoffman characters, Gunther is a man who is down on his luck. He eats too much, he drinks too much, he never seems to sleep and his weight forces him to constantly adjust his belt as he walks. Unlike le Carre's George Smiley, Gunther sometimes finds himself unable to properly mask his emotions. Even so, he is a professional, and he speaks with a quiet, unwavering authoritativeness which suggests that he knows what he's doing. I'm not sure that Hoffman's accent sounds authentically German, but whatever he's doing is so consistent that it hardly matters.
For most of the film, Hoffman keeps his performance within a very narrow, specific range – a necessity for a man in Gunther's profession. Then, during those closing minutes, he hits some new notes. It's a sequence which reminds us of what an incredible force he could be. The film's conclusion is a tough pill to swallow on its own terms, but it's made even more difficult by the manner in which it unintentionally plays on our knowledge of the actor's personal struggles. It's still difficult to believe that Hoffman is gone, and this film ultimately serves as a bittersweet reminder that he left us while he was still in his prime. This isn't technically his very last role, but it's hard to imagine a more painfully fitting farewell than this mournful howl of a performance. The film has some valuable things to say about global politics, post-9/11 paranoia, lack of accountability within the intelligence community and moral compromises our governments make in the name of national security, but all I could think about afterward was the sad, tired face of a man who is no longer with us.
A Most Wanted Man
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2014