It's likely that A Most Wanted Man will achieve a reputation for being the last Philip Seymour Hoffman film, but it should be known for being the most realistic spy drama in recent years. According to reputable sources it's minor John Le Carré, but that doesn't mean it's subpar filmmaking. In fact, one of the joys of director Anton Corbijn's latest film is dissecting the quiet calmness of such an intense, personal situation.
Nothing about A Most Wanted Man screams excitement. It's the story of long-time German spy Gunther Bachmann (the late PSH) and his quest to corral banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and Chechen refugee Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) in a way that will benefit his home city of Hamburg, provide relief to all of the plot's major players, and benefit the safety of both his country and the world. It's a grand plan, which means it is destined to fail.
The film's ultimate message is one of resignation; much like every season of The Wire, it's clear that both police commanders and government bigwigs have no time for the long con. While Bachmann's plan appears brilliant from moment one, his prickly attitude and lack of interest in a quick resolution rub almost everyone the wrong way. Even as he's pushing his plans through politician after politician, there's a sense that they're waiting for him to fail so they can swoop in and pick up the pieces.
Such is the life of a Philip Seymour Hoffman character. Though he's not entirely condemned to playing schlubs, it does suit him. His passion and intensity are readily apparent to anyone viewing him on screen, but when looking through the eyes of his superiors you can see why he's ignored. They only glimpse the biting sarcasm, the untucked shirt, the messed-up hair, and they label it unprofessional. Only the audience, with a view into his home life and his off-work interactions, knows just how hard he burns for justice and resolution.
And A Most Wanted Man is no exception; he's fighting what feels like a losing battle the entire way. Bachmann carries himself with a quiet courage that feels innate, without any reason for being. Perhaps because of his Academy Award-caliber pedigree, Hoffman can never play a pure loser. But he's at his best when playing someone who rebels against insurmountable odds, who dips his toe into an unpopular pool and refuses to back down when others disagree. Maybe it's because I'm a seasoned cinema veteran, but when the film was coming to a close I began immediately wondering how Bachmann and his gang (including Inglourious Basterds' Daniel Brühl) were going to make it through unscathed. I hope it's not a spoiler to note that there are very few happy endings for Philip Seymour Hoffman.
That feels true to the life of a spy, a life that Corbijn is attempting to portray. His Hamburg is stale, packed with dank dive bars and docks where countless ships produce unspecified cargo on a daily basis. His spies have conversations, not fistfights, and instead of relaying massive schemes they instead trade bits of information in an attempt to piece a full story together that could save a few lives.
More films than I can count have shown a spy dodging nuclear weaponry, winning impossible shootouts, outsmarting the world's finest villains. In A Most Wanted Man, it's not about toppling an evil terrorist or even bedding an attractive woman. It's about a defeated man trying to find a foothold in an industry that breeds defeated men. It's about the cycle of short-term goals and long-term failure that drives our world further down the drain, and it's about a post-9/11 world that's perpetually bossed around by America for no apparent reason.
It's slow, deliberate and methodical, which is precisely what makes it so excellent.