Movie review: 'A Most Wanted Man'

Slipping in between the summer blockbusters comes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last full performance in “A Most Wanted Man,” a very subtle, deliberate, and talky John LeCarre adaptation.  Hoffman plays German spymaster Gunther Bachmann, who runs a tiny off-the-books counter-espionage unit in Hamburg.  Bachmann plays a long, patient game in the War on Terror, breaking German law here and there in his efforts to slowly climb the terrorist totem pole.  When he learns of a half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim refugee looking to dispose of his late, unlamented father’s ill-gotten millions, Bachmann sees an opportunity to get his hooks into a seemingly clean Islamic scholar and philanthropist, who is suspected of diverting money into al-Qaeda’s hands behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, everyone else in the counter-terrorism game – from the more respectable German spy agencies to the American CIA – wants to make big, quick, high-profile arrests.  Bachmann wants to entrap and flip the Islamic scholar, in a game that won’t end until he has a shot at the highest-level terror masters.  As he puts it, he sees the Chechen refugee as a minnow that can be used to catch a barracuda, and the scholar as a barracuda he might use as bait to catch some sharks.  He doesn’t want to arrest and humiliate any of the low-level terrorist figures caught in his web, he wants to subvert them, which means giving them amnesty for their offenses.  

No one else sees things Bachmann’s way – he’s a baggy-eyed, whiskey-slugging, chain-smoking relic of Cold War espionage chess, haunting the docks and seedy bars of Hamburg like a badly-tailored ghost.  The best he can do is win a ridiculously short 72-hour window to play his targets and get some solid results.  

Unfortunately, the script isn’t terribly fair to Bachmann’s nemeses in the intelligence community, who are uniformly portrayed as careerist blockheads or bull-in-a-china-shop nitwits, but everyone else involved in this little game of betrayal is given plenty of time to express their points of view: a nervous banker, an idealistic liberal lawyer, several members of Hamburg’s Muslim community, and the “most wanted man” who kicks everything off with his entirely innocent desire to atone for his Russian father’s sins by donating his dirty money to charity.  A fairly mature attitude to the War on Terror is displayed throughout, as Bachmann looms from clouds of cigarette smoke to give the misguided idealists who cross his path a few lessons in how the real world works.  Terrorist networks get a lot of mileage from playing starry-eyed dreamers for fools, and playing off the simmering resentments in men who might otherwise have done some good in the world.  Being 80 percent decent isn’t good enough once al-Qaeda gets a piece of you.

This would have been Philip Seymour Hoffman’s movie even if it didn’t have melancholy distinction of serving as his swan song.  (The last shot of the movie seems bizarre at first, until you realize it’s as much a farewell to Hoffman as to his character, and it works beautifully for that purpose.)  His gift for fully inhabiting his roles, and rummaging through his own personal baggage to find accessories for the broken men he plays, is on full display.  He looks awful, and he’s supposed to, but it seems wrong to pity him when he’s so obviously using every blemish on his face to sell the part.  Most intriguingly, rheumy old Gunther Bachmann hides a spark of sweet, pure hope beneath his jaded exterior, lighting up like a Christmas tree on the rare occasions when he gets to explain that he does this lousy job because he wants to make the world a better place.  He’s almost a kindred spirit to the tortured (spiritually and literally) Chechen who desperately wants to scrub away the stain his father left upon the world.  The two will never have an honest conversation, but if they did, they’d have a lot to talk about.

“A Most Wanted Man” is not an action film or a harrowing spy thriller.  The hardcore terrorists remain off-screen, their presence felt in the way they corrupt people who might otherwise have been able to live honest and peaceful lives.  This is mostly a series of conversations about the nature of betrayal, and how easily idealism can be corrupted by sharp operators on either side of justice.  It’s filmed a bit more languidly than necessary, stretching 30 minutes of plot plus 45 minutes of meaningful dialogue into two hours of movie.  But it’s the last chance we’ll get to see Hoffman completely own a movie… and he absolutely owns this one.