No one could have predicted that A Most Wanted Man would feature Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final role, but I can’t think of a better way that he could have taken his final bow. Hoffman’s primary talent as an actor was to take harsh, unsympathetic characters and portray them with such humanizing nuance that we cannot help but be sympathetic. With the exception of his portrayal of Truman Capote, I don’t think Hoffman has ever done a finer job of making the unlovable just a little bit understandable.
Hoffman plays a German intelligence agent in Hamburg named Gunther Bachmann, attempting to hunt down a Chechnyan refugee, Issa Karpov, whom he believes may be involved in plans for future terrorist activities because he is the son of a known launderer of terrorist funds. Hoffman’s espionage team also begins tracking a local Muslim philanthropist whom they believe funnels money to fund terrorist organizations. Gunther seeks to manipulate the two targets into exchanging funds, coercing the help of a nervous banker and Issa’s own attorney in order to achieve these ends, all while trying to navigate debriefings with American agents who seem a little too interested in the case.
The plot itself is hard to describe much further, due to its relative complexity and reliance on surprises. However, what I will say is that initial perceptions of several key characters are not always as they appear to be, and the lines become a bit blurred when determining who is truly a villain and who is only doing villainous things in order to further a righteous agenda. Hoffman walks this line perfectly as Gunther, a cynically unapologetic spy who seems to live entirely on cigarettes and coffee and has no life outside of his obsessive job. He and his team are not legally a part of German law enforcement, so he has license to illegally use surveillance and is not above blackmailing or kidnapping people in order to get what he wants. However, he only does those things because he wants to prevent another terrorist event from happening. He takes no joy in what he does, and the film does nothing to make his tactics any more redeemable. He’s only doing his job in the best way he knows how and hoping that the world ends up a safer place because of it.
The film is really only hindered by a few weaker performances, notably Rachel McAdams as Issa’s attorney and Willem Dafoe as the banker. Dafoe doesn’t do a horrible job, but he mostly feels like he’s been miscast, forcibly restrained from being a more animated character that wouldn’t have fit in this film. Again, not a bad performance, but one that I think should have been filled by a different breed of character actor. However, the real weak link her is McAdams, who, while not terrible, feels a bit flat compared to her fellow performers. She doesn’t portray much emotion beyond blind concern for Issa’s well-being and guilt for being manipulated against him, and her inability to convey a convincing German accent leaves a lot to be desired. While not outright bad, her lack of ability is especially noticeable when in scenes where Hoffman dominates not just out of his own gravitas, but out of necessity to carry the scene forward.
Those minor quibbles aside, A Most Wanted Man is a damn good espionage thriller that will leave you shocked at some points, intrigued at others, and disgusted in gut-wrenching ways by the end. This one is definitely worth your time.
Have a favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman film? Let me know in the comments below.