When someone in Hollywood dies young, it can be tempting to write a paean of love to them simply because of their early death. Whether they were quite as incredible as people claim to remember, or have perhaps had some of their less saintly qualities buried under tributes and commiserations, the fact remains that often, such praise can be unjustified. For Philip Seymour Hoffman, posthumous star of A Most Wanted Man, this is decidedly not the case.
The film follows an illegal Chechen immigrant, Issa, who arrives in a post-9/11 Hamburg that is determined not to allow the same mistakes to reoccur that saw the architects of that attack live and plot unhindered in the city. As Issa sets red lights flashing all over the CIA and German police’s watch lists, the young human rights lawyer who takes on Issa’s case (Rachel McAdams) has no choice but to rely on a banker (Willem Dafoe) entrusted with Issa’s father’s ill-gotten Cold War millions and an aging, disgraced German intelligence agent, Günther.
Which brings us back to Hoffman. Hugely prolific, the actor tended towards characters who were generally insecure, closeted, perverted, alcoholic, cynical or, on occasion, evil. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, MI3, Happiness, Almost Famous all are perfect examples. Drawn to outcasts and misanthropes, Hoffman was not a cool actor, not a superstar. In this sense, he was perfect for the role of Günther. A tubby, wry, shabby-looking European, gruff but not humourless, Günther shares numerous scenes with his CIA counterpart, Martha, who is ice-cold and composed, perfectly groomed and masterfully flattering. The two could not be more dissimilar. Hoffman brings the character to life as a man with frustrations, with friendships and working relationships, and with a worldview that is neither as cynical as the American’s nor as idealistic as the lawyer’s. He is a heavy-drinking realpolitik guy, moral but also menacing when needed, in charge without appearing to be so. Hoffman’s Günther is the glue that brings all the other characters together in a film that is essentially half character study, half geopolitical statement. It would not be hyperbolic to say that elements of the way he moves and breathes in this film echo the later acting of Marlon Brando.
As for the film itself, the obvious comparison to be made is with 2011’s brilliant Le Carré adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A Most Wanted Man is far less complicated to follow, and whilst Tinker Tailor was a showcase for British acting talent, this is a more international affair. The change of setting from Cold War to War on Terror is one that gives the film its edge, allowing it, ultimately, to criticise the heavy-handed tactics used by the USA and to highlight the human rights abuses of extraordinary rendition and imprisonment without trial. Morality is here measured in delightfully subtle shades of grey. In addition to this, we still get all the traditional spy movie tropes: entrapment, blackmail, meetings in seedy bars and informants.
Sometimes, it seems as though the realism of the espionage can detract from the film’s entertainment value. Le Carré was a spy in Hamburg in the 60s, and one has to take his word on what spying is really like (it must be boring; after all, when was the last time you saw a gunfight in the street between men in suits using futuristic gadgets and driving Aston Martins?) but through the film’s two-hour runtime there are perhaps two scenes in which a character moves at more than a steady walk, nor is a single gunshot fired in the whole movie. That said, those who have read the book will remember the sensational final sequence, which will justify every second of the rest of the film to those with any doubts left.
A quiet, slow-burning and thought-provoking film, A Most Wanted Man represents the final bow of one of the finest actors of his generation, and that alone would be justification enough for existence and success. As it happens, it is also a telling commentary on the global conflict of the 21st century, the impact on those caught up in it, and the sacrifices made in the name of the greater good. Every now and then a film is made that makes you feel guilty if you don’t sit and think for a few minutes as the credits roll; A Most Wanted Man is one of those films.