Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final starring role is alone worth the price of admission. Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, the head of a small, secretive German counter-terrorist organization which is always butting heads with German intelligence and the CIA. Bachmann is based in Hamburg, where a young Chechen man (Issa, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin) has just turned up (illegally), claiming to want asylum (he has obviously been tortured) and to lay claim to his father’s hidden bank account (the father has died, leaving behind a mysterious letter). The money in the account (and there’s a lot of it) is ‘dirty’ and Issa doesn’t want it for himself, which works well for Bachmann, who is scheming to find out how certain donated funds end up being used to arm terrorists and sees an opportunity to use Issa expose those responsible.
The plot of A Most Wanted Man wanders in all kinds of directions, with a German lawyer (played by Rachel McAdams) trying to protect Issa but getting caught up in Bachmann’s plans, with a CIA agent, played by Robin Wright, scheming with Bachmann on the side (but with mysterious motives), with the confused innocent complicity in the scheming by the bank manager (played by Willem Defoe) and so on. There are too many characters involved to do justice to anyone other than Bachmann, which is a major flaw of the film – I just couldn’t relate to any of the film’s characters other than Bachmann. Fortunately, Hoffman’s great performance means that the flaw is not as critical as it could be.
A Most Wanted Man is based on the excellent novel by John Le Carre (a novel I read just last year). This helped me understand the rather convoluted plot but it also exposed the problem with character development. The film, like the novel, is a quiet intelligent European spy thriller, the kind that features only a few seconds of action. That happens to me one of my favourite specific genres, so I thoroughly enjoyed the film in spite of its flaws, especially appreciating the Hamburg cinematography and the minimalist score by Herbert Gronemeyer (who had a small role in the film), a German ‘rock’ musician I was listening to twenty years ago.
A Most Wanted Man (the film) is not nearly as effective as the book in revealing some of the justice issues surrounding the work of counter-terrorism, but, in combination with the fine acting and interesting setting, there is enough to think about in Anton Corbijn’s film to give it a solid ***+. My mug is up.