A Most Wanted Man is set in present-day Germany, and the locales where the drama unfolds are natural settings for cryptic characters who say things like, “I am a cave dweller.” Philip Seymour Hoffman is, now and forever, the ultimate choice to play one of those characters, Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence agent so internally driven and obsessive that he can’t function without escalating his strategies to nab a bad guy.
Based on John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell present a post-9/11 world where the threat of violence is nuanced and morally complicated. Bachmann and his team, isolated from the larger, disapproving German intelligence body, are on the hunt for a suspected Islamic terrorist hiding in Hamburg. Bachmann is consumed with finding this needle-in-a haystack threat to national security, but he can’t fully escape into a loner’s chase. He has to answer to the larger political entities that want to make an example out of any suspect, whether they are actually guilty or not.
CIA official Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) arrives on the scene with a tight smile on her face, ready to push the American agenda and ask questions later. Wright and Hoffman are a great match in scenes where they have to be vaguely hostile and condescending to each other, and it’s effortless how the two actors create a charged atmosphere with just little looks and hesitations. These particular spies have a lack of innocence or romanticism about what they do that is far from playing the hero.
But while the intelligence community comes off hardened and cynical with paranoia, the suspect they’re chasing, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), actually brings out the humanity in the story. The half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant believes in a higher power, praying while covered in scars from horrific torture. He evolves into a human rights case, and a young idealistic lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), steps in to help him gain asylum in Germany and collect an inheritance left by his late father. When she gets manipulated into working with Bachmann, it’s as if the most desperate people are now the ones trying to catch the criminals, not the criminals themselves, and no one is sure who the enemy really is.
Hoffman’s performance seems to come from a man wrestling with something inside of him that refuses to be tamed. It’s both him and the character at once – sharp, precise, and intimidating in its intensity.
The rest of the cast, rounded out by Willem Dafoe, who plays a wealthy and corruptible head of a bank, deliver on the suspense of trying to win at both sides of a political game, to decide the fate of people’s lives without consensus, and to satisfy high-powered officials who need a scapegoat for the actions of extremists. Like Roman Polanski’s adaptation of The Ghost Writer, or Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there’s a wonderfully bleak imagination at work in A Most Wanted Man, packed into a film that doesn’t compromise as it reveals the agonizing waiting for something big to happen, and the loss of control when it does.
A Most Wanted Man opens nation-wide on Friday July 25.