Monday, August 11, 2014

New movie review: A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman leads a team of spies in A Most Wanted Man.
There are times when it is easy to feel sorry for ourselves and what we will never have. How many more great songs would Kurt Cobain have recorded? How many more great books would John Kennedy Toole have written? And how many more great performances would Philip Seymour Hoffman have given?

At best, these questions are unfair, and at worst, they diminish the value of the work we do have. Cobain gave us some of the best rock music of the 20th century. Toole gave us one of the most insightful comic novels ever penned. And Hoffman, well, that is another matter altogether.

With performance after performance in film after film, Hoffman elevated acting to the level of art. He was not simply one of the best of his generation. He set the bar for his generation. The work he left behind will be studied and dissected for years to come, and in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, he has delivered one final masterwork.

Based on the novel by John le CarrĂ©, A Most Wanted Man is an international spy thriller for the post-9/11 world. But this is not Jason Bourne or James Bond. Modern spy movies have become overly obsessed with the bomb going off, while showing little concern for the business of preventing it. Corbijn’s film, adapted by Andrew Bovell, finds the tension in that trade.

Of course, the pieces are all there for a traditional action-suspense film – shadowy government agencies, elite teams of spies, suspected terrorists, and figures of international high finance. Year after year, we have watched filmmakers assemble these parts into rote drama and uninspiring action. But the artists behind A Most Wanted Man find a new way to fit the puzzle pieces together, producing a picture of true depth and intelligence.

This will come as no surprise to those who have followed Corbijn’s feature film career. From the gorgeous biopic Control to the classically European thriller The American, Corbijn has an almost unparalleled facility for subverting genre. He eschews the shallow tropes and tricks of lesser films in favor of taking audiences on a trip into the murky depths of the human psyche. In Hoffman, he finds the perfect vessel for just such a journey.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the leader of a team of spies tasked with tracking terrorist activity in Germany. As the film opens, Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen convict, illegally enters the country after suffering untold tortures in a Russian prison. We learn that Karpov’s now-deceased father amassed a fortune profiting off terrorist activities, and Karpov has come to Germany to collect his money. Rachel McAdams plays the human rights attorney helping him in his quest, and Willem Dafoe is the banker who holds the key to the fortune.

As a Muslim with family ties to terrorism, Karpov becomes priority No. 1 for Bachmann’s team as they try to make connections to a larger ring of terrorists and their financial backers. Robin Wright appears as an American intelligence official with a keen interest in anything Bachmann’s team uncovers.

In short, there are a lot of moving pieces, as loyalties shift and motivations come into and go out of focus. Corbijn keeps these plot mechanics running smoothly as he delves deeper into what makes these people tick. While the action is an expert recreation of the business of spying on an unknown and unknowable enemy, the film comes most to life in the small moments that illuminate the characters.

As Bachmann takes a cigarette break on the balcony, he looks out over the land he has sworn to protect. It becomes clear that when you have made your life’s work the safety of an entire nation, work never stops. But in the modern world, the war on terror is increasingly borderless, meaning people such as Bachmann truly bear the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Hoffman slides into this milieu like a bullet going into the chamber. He plays Bachmann as a towering figure who still cannot stand taller than the bureaucracies that govern him, and when he tries to step beyond the walls, he finds only more walls. This is Hoffman at the height of his powers, projecting a weariness that only people who have seen the worst of this world can understand.

The performances all around are solid with McAdams a particularly pleasant surprise as a would-be idealist who cannot outrun a growing pessimism based on all she sees and experiences. One wishes Dobrygin had been given more to do as the most wanted man of the title. Too often he reads like a cypher onto which the rest of the characters project their own feelings about life. Still, Dobrygin does an admirable job of portraying a man so threatened by the world, he hardly realizes the threat he poses.

If the film has a flaw, it is the failure to address the implications of domestic spying or the ramifications of the war on terror. The introspection of the characters does not extend to the world they inhabit as it does in, say, the great German spy film The Lives of Others. It could be argued that these characters would not be able to see beyond their world, beyond the walls within walls, to take an objective view of the work they do. They simply are doing a job, and the onus is on the audience to parse its meaning.

None of this is to say the film is overly cerebral. The excitement is there, right down to an electrifying final sequence that will leave you gripping your arm rest. This is a smart thriller for smart audiences who crave substance as much as suspense. More than that, however, it is a fitting swan song for Hoffman, an actor who always gave us everything he had. How lucky we are to have received it.

See it? Yes.

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