A Most Wanted Man is a rare feature: a relatively smart take on the war on terror that doesn’t devolve into ideological score settling.
For every good-to-great film about the post-9/11 world—Zero Dark Thirty, let’s say—there’s a whole passel of pedantic crap (Redacted, Lions for Lambs, and The Green Zone). As one might expect from a film adapted from a John le Carré novel, there are no easy answers. And that is much to the picture’s benefit.
Set in the German port town of Hamburg, the locale in which the 9/11 attacks were planned, A Most Wanted Man follows the efforts of Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to turn a financier of terror into a valuable source. "It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark," Günther says, explaining that he’s all about the long game.
The minnow that has wandered near his fishing line is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim in Germany illegally. Though a convicted terrorist fleeing from Russia, there is some doubt about his commitment to the cause. Was his confession beaten out of him? Or is he in Western Europe to make havoc?
The one thing we know for sure is that he’s trying to get his hands on eight figures worth of Euros, a fortune left to him by his estranged father at a bank known for laundering illicit funds. Aiding him in his effort is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lawyer working for a pro-immigrant NGO. She takes him to the bank, headed by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), where his father’s fortune resides.
That fortune may net Günther his barracuda, the terror financier Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). Reeling Abdullah in may be the goal, but hooking him will require Günther’s cobbled-together network of sources chomping down on a variety of baits.
"You’re threatening me?" an aggrieved Brue asks Günther when the spy reveals he understands the illicit nature of his bank—as well as his understanding of the difficult spot Brue has been put in by his father. "Just sympathizing," he replies. "You’ve been left to clean up the mess."
With Annabel, he’s forced to take a slightly different tack: get her to understand the true nature of their world and her work in it, while also assuring her that her client is not his ultimate goal. "Lawyer?" he spits, when she says she is an officer of the court. "You’re a fucking social worker for terrorists." And she is. And she knows it. And it fills her with, if not quite shame, at least a sense of embarrassment.
Finding that embarrassment, that soft spot, is what Günther does. There’s no one better suited for the role than Hoffman.
Throughout A Most Wanted Man, you are reminded just what the cinema lost when Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose earlier this year. As with all great actors, it’s about the eyes and the lips. He does this thing where he squints and ever so slightly winks before half-smiling, as if there’s some grand joke that he’s letting you in on. It’s a type of faux-intimacy, one that works on both characters and audiences alike. He puts you at ease before pressing for what he wants.
Hoffman very clearly was not healthy during the filming of this picture. He shuffles rather than walks, shuffling slightly more quickly rather than running when the script calls for it. And yet there’s still a power there, a deep reservoir of strength resting just behind the eyes. You can see it when he’s perched on the balcony of his office, the diagonal walls of the office buildings surrounding him, hemming him in, imprisoning him. Smoking a cigarette, he squints and looks upon his nemeses: terrorists, yes, but also the bureaucracy, the stultifying strictures his shadowy, semi-legal anti-terror unit are forced to deal with while trying to make the world a safer place.