Cinematic Ambien: 'A Most Wanted Man'
The late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the lone bright spot in Anton Corbijn's modern intelligence flick.
A Most Wanted Man isn't short on talent. It's adapted from the novel of the same name by John le Carré. It's directed by Anton Corbijn and it stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and talented newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin. It's a professional movie, to be certain. Corbijn is one of the new masters. So why was I so disinterested? I think it has to do with how boring this story is.
Hoffman leads A Most Wanted Man as Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence agent who's at the end of his career. He's out of shape, he smokes, he drinks, but he's still smart and he still has a web of contacts with serious reach. Bachmann is on the trail of Issa, a Chechen Muslim and ex-con who has just arrived in Hamburg in a shipping container. Bachmann hopes to use Issa as a government operative and catch bigger fish, but a human rights lawyer, Annabel (McAdams), gets in the way, along with the usual bureaucratic hassles Bachmann's more than tired of.
Issa holds the key to a bank account worth millions and Bachmann is sure that money is earmarked for terrorists. But he allows things to develop, lying in wait and watching all the chess pieces while moving the ones he can control. A banker (Dafoe) wants to help, a CIA agent (Robin Wright) needs to be kept in the loop, and the Head of Intelligence in Hamburg (Dieter Mohr) is pushing Bachmann to just make arrests and grab a quick headline.
The problem with all of these moving parts is there's no one to root for. It's much more of an antiseptic intelligence procedural than anything else. We watch. We are disconnected. The truth about Issa's character is kept in the shadows so we question his motives. We then question Annabel for trying to help him. And Bachmann, for all his smarts and grand intentions, is a chain-smoking alcoholic whom we never get to know well enough to emotionally invest in. But it's PSH so we love him.
Hoffman is tense in the role, grumbling through a light German accent and wearing the years of an international spy on his weathered face. He simmers and boils over a few times, but the movie can't match his intensity. The late actor played a spy once before, in Charlie Wilson's War, and it netted him an Oscar nomination. It wouldn't be a huge stretch to see it happen again for this boozy, bizarro James Bond character.
The rest of the cast does well enough, but these characters were not built for the movies. Le Carré's novel is a potboiler and Corbijn respects the material enough to just let things unfold. The director's first two films (Control, The American) were minimalist treasures. He's always been a talent and he tells this story about as well as anyone could, but it simply lacks the big moments you want to see from an international spy thriller. I mean, the best scene in this movie happens in a conference room.
Tomas Alfredsson had a similar challenge with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - the last onscreen le Carré adaptation. But Tinker is huge in scope and each scene feels as if it's absolutely necessary to the overall story. I can't say the same about A Most Wanted Man. There's a romantic subplot between Annabel and Issa that's not irrelevant, it's just a time waster. Once it's established Issa loves the girl and she has his trust, let's get back to Hoffman being the smartest guy in the room and punching out morons in bars. There are only so many longing Rachel McAdams looks I can take.