Movie Review: “A Most Wanted Man” – Espionage Puppetry

Written by Jesse Gelinas August 28, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man"We were all saddened by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this year. The truth is, despite whatever personal demons the man had, he was one of the greats. His body of work speaks for itself as a testament to the man’s devotion to his craft. His last completed leading role, “A Most Wanted Man” stands as an exemplary piece of his abilities as a performer. This espionage-thriller will surprise you with its lack of action, but a stacked cast, and gripping suspense will keep you intrigued nonetheless.

“A Most Wanted Man” takes place in Hamburg. The film opens with some text about one of the masterminds behind 9/11. He was able to plan the attack from Germany, with no interference from the government due to inter-agency rivalries and hostilities. A decade later, a small secret intelligence agency strives not to repeat these mistakes. A Chechen refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg seeking to claim a large inheritance. His name appears on a list of militant Jihadists, and so Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) and his team keep watch, hoping to snag him, the money, and whatever extremist organization it might be destined for. The plot also concerns other government agencies Bachmann is forced to appease in order to continue his work, including an American diplomat (Robin Wright). A humanitarian lawyer (Rachel McAdams), and a wealthy banker (Willem Dafoe) also complicate things. The plot isn’t simple, but espionage never is.

“Old habits die hard… I mean yours.”

The first film that came to mind while watching “A Most Wanted Man” was “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Both being based on le Carré novels, it wasn’t a huge leap to make. They both have that real slow-burn type of suspense to them. There is literally not a moment of traditional action in the film. No shootouts, no death, no guns at all if I remember correctly. You’re essentially watching a bunch of secret conversations, inter-cut with scenes of people watching those secret conversations, and then discussing those conversations. But it all just works somehow. The film clocks in at just over two hours and I wasn’t bored for a moment.

Rachel McAdams in "A Most Wanted Man"

Given the history Germany has with terrorism, the film captures the post-9/11 atmosphere of fear and paranoia perfectly. And it was truly interesting seeing the action behind the scenes of the intelligence world. The puppeteers if you will. The film contains a lot of other European political commentary, mainly provided by Issa (Dobrygin), who explains his father’s part in the Chechen war, which leads to an unexpected twist in Issa’s story and motivation later in the film.

“A man with a good reputation is of no use to me.”

The film’s greatest asset is Hoffman. His turn as the aged, alcoholic spy is a tour de force, and a magnificent cap to his career cut short. It took a scene or two for me to adjust to his German accent, but it soon felt as natural as the rest of his performance. Where the film falters is with some of the supporting cast. McAdams in particularly seems miscast, and her dialect is quite jarring, not fitting with anyone else’s. She does however carry herself decently among the heavyweights in the film, and doesn’t detract much from any scene she’s in. Her character’s scenes with Issa actually get quite touching as the story goes on, and I found myself quite engaged with her by the end of the film.

Willem Dafoe in "A Most Wanted Man"

“A Most Wanted Man” doesn’t exactly rewrite the spy genre, but it’s a refreshing break from the Bourne series of espionage films. The behind-the-scenes setting, and political maneuvering are as intriguing as any Bond shootout or car chase in recent memory.Hoffman’s performance helps raise the film to an een higher echelon, and serves as a great send off for the late actor. While the film may be a bit dry for mainstream success, and a bit dark for awards consideration, it is a fine piece of filmmaking about the fearful world we find ourselves in today, and should serve as a template for future films in the same vein.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Poster for "A Most Wanted Man"

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About Jesse Gelinas

After years attempting to escape the Matrix, Jesse has accepted his fate as a writer and Senior Editor. Now that's he finished with his film degree, it gives him something to do while waiting for the machines to get careless.

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