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A Most Wanted Man Review

a-most-wanted-man-review
RATING:
(3.5 STARS)

The name John le Carré is to the spy genre as Tolkien is to fantasy. For more than 50 years, the man has thrilled fans with labyrinthine tales of hardened espionage agents trying to navigate morally murky waters—and he’s still going.

Published in 2008, A Most Wanted Man is one of his most recent novels, and it’s been adapted here by Andrew Bovell. There’s very little out of the ordinary on display in director Anton Corbijn’s film, but it’s all expertly done—thrilling, intellectually engaging, wildly entertaining.

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a highly respected German intelligence agent who runs a small team of fellow Hamburg-based agents who operate underneath the long arm of the law. They’re mostly free to do whatever they want—befriend their enemies, sleep with them if necessary—as long as they yield results. The problem is he likes to let his targets play—keep an eye on their movements, their purchases, their friends in order to gain more information. In other words, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. His superiors—not to mention their American counterparts—disagree.

This school of thought is put to the test when a Chechen—Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin)—pops up in town with possible ties to Islamic extremism and claim to a small fortune. Bachmann wants to subtly use Karpov and his money to get to a Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi)—a philanthropist who may be siphoning money away from his charities and toward terrorists. He’s a bigger fish than Karpov ever would be, but there’s little to no physical evidence of wrongdoing. Bachmann finds two unwilling allies in the form of Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe), Karpov’s banker, and Annabelle Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lawyer working to secure him citizenship.

There are two simultaneous cat-and-mouse games occurring, and it’s tough to decide which one is more intriguing. Bachmann and his team track and try to turn Karpov without his knowledge, and all the while, he’s engaged in a soft power battle with the cautious bureaucracy that employs him. He finds an unlikely friend in Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), the rare member of the American intelligencia who’s not particularly interested in torture and assassination. She wants to buy Bachmann time, but both know they’re still facing a ticking clock.

One can’t really help but consider another recent le Carré film adaptation—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—when thinking about A Most Wanted Man, and it’s this comparison, I’d argue, that has allowed Corbijn’s film to sort of slip through the cracks in 2014. Tinker, Tailor is one of the best-crafted films of the 21st century, and while A Most Wanted Man doesn’t reach that impossibly high bar, it’s probably more present than Tinker, Tailor. It’s set in the present day, but more notably, its characters are approachable. Their frustrations feel palpable, their moral dilemmas are challenging.

The film’s politics are approachable, too. We follow Bachmann to several meetings with higher ups and colleagues who all have varying opinions about the best way to handle their assets. Bachmann’s opinions land pretty far toward the progressive end of the spectrum (something that sounds very odd in the context of American politics). He’d say there’s no need for aggression or violence when the end result leaves you where you started but now with a dead body. He’s a pro with an ego and really hates the implication that he’s not good enough at his job to string an asset along. All this comes to a head in the film’s sobering conclusion—a scene one can’t really get into in a forum like this, but one that kind of turns the whole film on its head and hammers home the danger of acting pre-emptively when you’re driven exclusively by fear.

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the best performance in the film, and it’s one of the best performances of 2014. He’s not exactly physically imposing, and he’s slouches over a lot, but he’s nonetheless a frightening figure who holds a lot of emotional power over the men and women he works with. Hoffman’s German accent is really strong, and I honestly think this is one of the best characters he’s played in his career. What a talent.

Also great (though more surprisingly) is Rachel McAdams. Her accent is more acceptable than strong, but she gives a better performance that this particular character probably deserves. Annabelle is sort of a figment of a liberal imagination—a strong, sexy human rights lawyer who doesn’t seem to actually make money or know people but nonetheless exudes success and confidence—but McAdams grounds her if not in reality than at least in this reality. She’s a genuine moral compass in a place that tries really hard to repress such things, and the presence of one throws a wrench into the respective plans of these humanoids.

In film history, A Most Wanted Man will be remembered as the film that gave us Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last great performance, but today, I can admire it as one of the most watchable and satisfyingly complete motion pictures of 2014. It’s a genre picture, but one that’s expertly crafted and assembled, and man, can Corbijn director or what? Overall, it’s a must-see for anyone who likes good, thrilling movies, and anyone who admires its talented, tragically deceased lead actor.

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