By Preston Wilder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last leading role, is Gunther Bachmann, head of a secret anti-terrorist cell in Hamburg. He’s pale and shambling, a sack of a man. He seems to subsist on black coffee and cigarettes. There’s a stillness about him. He can give chase down a busy street if he has to, and floor a man with a single punch if necessary – but his main talent is for patience and persuasion, and his watchword is ‘wait and see’. What do you see? asks an impatient colleague who’d like to arrest all these suspected jihadists. Enough to keep waiting, he replies.
A Most Wanted Man is based on a John le Carré novel, and – like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a couple of years ago – it’s absorbing, if perhaps a bit too languid. Tinker Tailor seemed to have more urgency, and a better sense for the stunted quality of life as a spy. More importantly, Tinker Tailor was set in the 70s whereas A Most Wanted Man takes place in the post-9/11 present – indeed, as an opening caption informs us, Hamburg was where Mohammed Atta planned 9/11, a symbolic coincidence that hangs heavy over the movie. Hamburg is one of the world’s great ports, observes Gunther; for centuries it opened its arms to every passing foreigner – but now it mistrusts them, especially the dark-skinned foreigners who may be trying to kill ‘us’.
That raises a spectre – the spectre of the War on Terror – which the film (made by a director known mostly as a stylist) isn’t complex enough to engage with. We need to arrest them or there’ll be blood on the streets, blusters the local intelligence chief at one point; “Have you ever seen blood on the streets? Clown!” replies Gunther scornfully – and his point is presumably that he, Gunther, has seen blood on the streets, but it also makes another point, that the war on terror is a war of pre-emption, not a real war. Gunther and Co. live in the shadows, playing a game of chess (chess is significantly glimpsed at one point) with the bad guys where they try to bait and frustrate them. And for what? “To make the world a safer place,” mumbles Gunther after a pause, sounding like he doesn’t quite believe it himself.
It may be that Le Carré’s spies no longer have the same appeal in the age of Edward Snowden. There used to be something almost picturesque about them; they met at bus stops and exchanged secret passwords . There’s still some of that – like the bit where Gunther surreptitiously picks up a USB stick in a pack of cigarettes – but they mostly work with hidden cameras and constant surveillance, which gives us pause nowadays.
Then again, they’re not really meant to be heroic – especially the other spies, who lack finesse (the Americans in particular have lost everyone’s trust, thanks to cowboy antics like grabbing suspects off the street; “We don’t do that anymore,” protests Robin Wright as the CIA lady). Gunther isn’t really heroic either, but his genius – and Hoffman’s genius in playing him – is the way he persuades and seduces, able to soothe a young informant or intimidate human-rights lawyer Rachel McAdams with the same deft confidence. Gunther is suave under pressure (“You’re threatening me?” asks crooked banker Willem Dafoe; “Just sympathising,” he retorts smoothly), and able to use others’ interests for his own ends. “I’m not doing this for you!” snarls Dafoe after he’s been persuaded. “Whatever it takes, Tommy,” replies our equable hero.
The plot – hinging on a young, half-Chechen Muslim jihadist who stands to inherit millions of Euros – is watchable enough, but characters and atmosphere are the main attraction: a metal-grey morning in Hamburg, a dimly-lit bar with ‘Sea of Love’ playing in the background. Above all, the details and intrigues of a subterranean shadow-world: a Muslim benefactor runs charities from Egypt to Afghanistan, but a little money goes missing each time; 100 tons of donated grain are shipped from Cyprus (we’re in the movie too!) to Djibouti, but 10 tons somehow end up on the black market in Yemen, the proceeds used to buy arms for Islamist fighters. A Most Wanted Man could’ve been richer – more urgent, more ambivalent about its hero – but there’s something there, a certain sinewy texture. As Gunther tells McAdams’ quixotic lawyer: “This is the real world, Annabel!”. Closer than we usually get at the multiplex, anyhow.
DIRECTED BY Anton Corbijn
STARRING Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe
UK/Germany 2014 122 mins.