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Non-Review Review: A Most Wanted Man

For better or worse, A Most Wanted Man is going to be overshadowed by the passing of its lead actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a giant, a performer with a wonderful gift for bringing flawed and real characters to life, and A Most Wanted Man serves as his last leading role in a major motion picture. It is impossible to talk about A Most Wanted Man without talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It is a great performance, one that reminds the audience of why they loved Hoffman in the first place – Günther Bachmann is the sort of flawed human being that Hoffman played so well, given a great deal of depth by the late actor.

What's on the table?

What’s on the table?

If A Most Wanted Man were a stronger story, this would be a problem. If the film had the density or the power of the stronger le Carré adaptations – both versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – then Hoffman’s overshadowing of the rest of the movie would feel awkward or incongruous. Instead, A Most Wanted Man plays as a collection of le Carré storytelling conventions powered by its central performances. The result is a highly watchable, if not exceptional, spy thriller.

“Do you ever think about why we do what we do?” Günther Bachmann asks in a candid moment of introspection. A Most Wanted Man is set against the backdrop of post-9/11 paranoia, but its themes are more existential. Bachmann is a decent man caught in the midst of an indecent game, a character who finds himself trying to secure the best possible outcome in a cynical world where ego and politics make it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Do the Wright thing...

Do the Wright thing…

The details may have changed, the circumstances may be different, but this is fundamentally the same world occupied by George Smiley and Alec Leamas. The fine print of the rules may have changed slightly, but the game is fundamentally the same. Le Carré always used the spy game as a window into the soul, and there are apparently some universal constants that remain in play even as circumstances shift. So A Most Wanted Man has very few surprises. It works best when it it treats le Carré’s standard storytelling devices as tragic inevitabilities, rather than surprising twists.

For this reason, the film’s final act just about works, even though the audience spends most of it two steps ahead of Bachmann – a character supposedly well-versed in the workings and mechanics of the international spy trade. Still, the plot of A Most Wanted Man is very clearly a secondary concern here. A more involved or compelling narrative might distract from the film’s central draw. A Most Wanted Man is very much a showcase film, one built around watching great actors circle one another.

Talk about having trouble sleeping at night...

Talk about having trouble sleeping at night…

Philip Seymour Hoffman will garner the most attention for his work here, understandably. His portrayal of Bachmann is fascinating and compelling. Despite the work that he does, and the decisions he has made, and the trauma he has endured, Hoffman finds a slither of genuine optimism in the well-traveled intelligence operative. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Bachmann stresses the “good” and the “positive”, arguing that good and evil are not binary concepts.

He suggests that use of torture and assassination and violent coercion are ultimately self-defeating, instead proposing that intelligence-gathering is more effective if it plays to people’s better natures and ideals. This is very much a stock element of post-9/11 espionage thrillers, but A Most Wanted Man never seems too preachy or whiny. Bachmann is not some doe-eyed optimist who believes that the world is a nice place and that intelligence-gathering organisations are inherently evil.

Carré on, regardless...

Carré on, regardless…

However, by the standards of le Carré’s world, Bachmann is a romantic idealist. He is a man who cannot ignore a man attacking a woman in a seedy bar because he is trying to keep a low profile. He works hard to protect those under his care, counting on decency and good will to motivate his operatives rather than blackmail or coersion. A Most Wanted Man concedes that Bachmann does not live a world that operates the way that he might like.

He drinks; he smokes. The film’s soundtrack is underscored by the sound of Bachmann breathing heavily, as if struggling against all the burdens that the world heaps upon him. Hoffman is great, bringing Bachmann to life as a fully-formed and nuanced character. He moves like a wounded man, recovering from some injury that is not necessarily physical. He is optimistic, but he is not foolhardy. Hoffman makes it clear that Bachmann might wish for the best, but he is also a veteran of world that trades in cynicism and skepticism.

Listen up!

Listen up!

Hoffman is ably assisted by a fantastic supporting cast. Watching A Most Wanted Man, there is a sense that the story might flow better as an ensemble piece – the meat of the plot divided up amongst the characters involved. The edit of the film favours Hoffman as Bachmann, but there’s a sense that the story belongs as much to the characters caught up in his web – Willem Dafoe as a banker trying to atone for his father’s sins, Rachel McAdams as a human rigths lawyer playing a dangerous game.

A Most Wanted Man benefits from a diverse and effective ensemble. Dafoe brings a surprising humanity to his banker-turned-intelligence-asset, and the film suffers when he disappears for large portions of the run time. Robin Wright is great as a suitably slippery United States intelligence official – one very clearly and very consciously playing her own game under the label of “international cooperation.” It is interesting to watch A Most Wanted Man and wonder if a more balanced edit exists, one focused less exclusively on Hoffman’s tortured Bachmann.

Up against the wall...

Up against the wall…

A Most Wanted Man is a solid, if unspectacular, le Carré adaptation. However, it almost works better that way. There is more room to appreciate Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role.

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