Reading the terms ‘post-9/11 thriller’, a term by which A Most Wanted Man is often described, one would expect that the central conceit would be to stop some act of Islamic fundamentalist terror. On the one hand, Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carré’s 2008 novel does feature this, but really, it’s far more concerned with the politics of the spy world. Put it this way: if the film’s spy protagonist Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last leading role before his death) was able to simply do his job, something which he is very good at, we’d have a much shorter film. Instead, one of the most intriguing things about A Most Wanted Man is that there is no clear enemy; just a number of factions ultimately trying to do the same job (as one character puts it: “making the world a safer place”), but differing in their approaches to doing so; one group wants instant results, the other wants to wait it out and play the long game.
It begins with the arrival in Hamburg of a Muslim Chechnian refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) with suspected terrorist links. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character Günther and his intelligence team are assigned to follow his activities, but he and his superiors have different reasons for doing so. At the same time as watching Günther and co. go about their work, we also spend time with the refugee himself, who contacts a lawyer (Rachel McAdams) in order to help retrieve something his father left him from a prominent banker (Willem Defoe). To complicate things further, the American intelligence services get abreast of the situation, and their representative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) meets with Günther.
Günther is a grizzled, alcohol-swigging veteran who cares about the people he tracks and the people he must involve in order to do so; Martha is an efficient ice queen. Together, their scenes are some of the most interesting of the film, a clash of differing personalities, both believing what they are doing is right and trying to convince the other to take their side. The electricity in these scenes is testament to the abilities of both actors, although since this is Hoffman’s last lead performance, the spotlight shines particularly on him – he is fantastic; world-weary but determined, and his final scene will go down in great film performance history.
The rest of the cast is just as strong; Dobrygin is quiet and damaged and Defoe is rich and powerful until he’s in Günther’s grasp. Big names like Daniel Brühl (Rush, Inglourious Basterds) complete Günther’s team, although they don’t end up having a lot to do. The weakest link is Rachel McAdam’s character, who, as an idealistic young lawyer, is a little underdeveloped until her world comes down with a crash. As for Anton Corbijn’s direction, it’s generally quite unfussy, less arthouse than his previous feature film The American, and the film is tinted throughout with a slightly yellowed colour scheme, perhaps in keeping with the period feel of the action – the spying is very physical, generally harking back to a previous time before we could rely on electronic surveillance.
A Most Wanted Man is a little difficult to talk about simply because some of its greatest delights come from the twists and turns of its slow-burn plot. To sum things up though, if you like your thrills to come from character confrontation rather than threats of violence, then this spy thriller will be right up your alley.
A Most Wanted Man is out now on DVD, Blu Ray and Download. Find It Here