Friday, December 19, 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman Delivers One Final Great Lead Performance in the Brilliantly Measured "A Most Wanted Man"

A Most Wanted Man reminds us (as if we needed reminding) 
that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an acting titan.
The life of a spy is not a glamorous one. It is not a life filled with globe-trotting chases, torrid love affairs and action-packed shootouts between dapper physical specimens, but rather a great deal of clerical work, slow surveillance and back-alley conversations between anonymously ordinary folk. It doesn't get the heart pumping; it systematically devours it. At least that's the approach taken by novelist John le Carré, whose take on espionage features a lot of political maneuvering and frustration, but very little sense of fun and adventure.

While that probably doesn't sound like the best sales pitch for a film, it's most certainly an apt one. And although such an approach might not seem the best for a movie, I can tell you that films based on le Carré's work have been some of the best of the last several years.

That doesn't mean they're for everyone. For instance, while I found Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be one of the more rewarding films of 2011, Candace fell asleep around the halfway mark. It's hard to blame her -- we watched it in the middle of a five-film binge, and, on top of that, it is dry, dense and not easily penetrated (I had a similar experience with Zodiac, another moody, slow burn that I should really revisit at some point). 

I say all this as a lead up to a review of A Most Wanted Man, the latest le Carré adaptation and one of my favorite films of 2014. It's cut from the same cloth as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, but the story isn't half as sprawling, so it feels more focused. For what it's worth: Candace did not fall asleep.

The story revolves around the efforts of an off-the-books terrorist investigation unit in Hamburg, Germany led by the disheveled and jaded Gunther Bachmann (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Gunther prefers to play the long game, collecting information and making contacts within the Muslim community. This puts him at odds with Mohr (Rainer Bock), the leader or a rival unit with a more aggressive and entirely short-sighted approach, not to mention his superiors, men who allowed the 9/11 attackers to operate a home-base in Hamburg right under their noses and have thus developed an itchy trigger finger.
Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams bring dimension to their roles.
When Chechen-Russian immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigori Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg seeking asylum and a large inheritance of dirty money, he becomes a prime target for both units. However, while Mohr wants to bring him in on suspicions of being a jihadist and go to work on him, Gunther wants to keep Issa free and covertly coerce him into donating his money to a supposed Muslim philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) to see if the philanthropist will reroute some of the funds to a shipping company Gunther believes to be a front for Al Qaeda.

The idea is to ensnare the philanthropist then use him to get to the actual terrorists, and a tacit agreement with a string-pulling CIA agent (Robin Wright Penn) buys Gunther three days to do things his way. That's no easy task considering he must turn a banker (Willem Dafoe) and Karpov's human right's lawyer (Rachel McAdams) in time to carry out the scheme. Plus, there's the question of if Gunther can even trust these outside officials to stay out of his way, especially in light of a previous failure in Beirut brought on by such bureaucratic cooperation.

This material fits director Anton Corbijn like a glove, as his last foray behind the camera was the similarly muted and restrained, yet atmospherically textured The American. Like that under-appreciated George Clooney gem, A Most Wanted Man is first and foremost a thoughtful and tightly-calibrated character study of a weary professional in a shady, soul-crushing line of work.

It's also a fitting last lead role for Hoffman. Perhaps the preeminent actor of his generation, Hoffman was an actor of tremendous range, but he specialized in playing bleary-eyed, inward sad sacks fighting against irrelevance. It's clear Gunther has made many personal sacrifices for his work -- for proof, just look at his relationship with his second-in-command (Nina Hoss), a woman with whom he shares a shorthand banter and more than a few longing looks. A scene in which the two share a kiss to avoid blowing their cover is as sad as it is charged, because it hints at the connection both have given up in their commitment to "make the world a better place."

Hoffman is as controlled and precise as he's ever been here, and yet the film grants him one last opportunity to nail blustery rage in his final scene. It's the tonal opposite of the scene that concluded Zero Dark Thirty, but intriguingly still hints at the same thematic point -- the hopelessness and disillusionment inherent in the spy game, a profession that takes and takes, but rarely gives back. A