A  Most Wanted Man

Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) brings his adaptation of master spy novelist John LeCarré’s A Most Wanted Man to 2014′s Sundance Film Festival.  Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, and Willem Dafoe, the taut, procedural thriller offers a realistic and compelling portrayal of modern, real world espionage.

The Players:

  • Director: Anton Corbijn
  • Writers: Andrew Bovell (screenplay), John LeCarré (novel)
  • Cinematography: Benoit Delhomme
  • Actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Robin Wright

Summary:

After a Chechen national (Dobrygin) illegally immigrates to Hamburg, he is placed under surveillance by the head of a German counter terrorism unit.  When an attorney (McAdams) agrees to help him claim his father’s inheritence, with the aid of an ethically questionable banker (Dafoe), they are all pulled into a precarious and tangled web of intrigue to capture a terrorism financier.

The Good:

  • Spy Games:  In case you didn’t know, actual spies don’t get into gunfights or motorcycle chases or have exploding pens.  Real espionage is about acquiring and developing assets, and conducting research and surveillance.  There are rules that must be observed between agencies and governments, and they require strict adherence.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves James Bond, but films like Spy Game, or Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (also by LeCarre), and now A Most Wanted Man provide a much more realistic depiction of these operations, and it is very compelling.
  • Hoffman & Co.:  Philip Seymour Hoffman seems saddled with a weariness and exhaustion that seems to age him more than almost any other role he’s ever played (including Synecdoche, NY).  His smokey, wheezy gruffness conveys a lifelong commitment to doing the right thing, the hard way.  It’s a smoldering intensity which complements the film’s grounded and murky tone.  Furthermore, Willem Dafoe turns in a less stylized performance than he typically gives, and it is welcome.  McAdams sheds her flirty brightness for a suspicious intensity.  And Robin Wright carries over the cool machination of her House of Cards character, as an American liaison to the German agency.  Very strong performances all around.
  • Hamburg: The film states at its start that Hamburg is the city in which the 9/11 plot was conceived, and makes preventing any further terrorist attacks a top priority.  So it’s immediately imbued with a sense of urgency, if only for its setting.  However, the city itself acts as a character in the film.  We’re given a sense of its many facets, particularly its busy harbors and historical architecture.  Corbijn forgoes the symmetry and stylish framing of Control for handheld shots which bolster the uneasy feeling  of the film.  It’s photography still maintains a strong aesthetic, especially in its use of color, but doesn’t call attention to itself, seeming to let the city speak for itself.

The Bad:

  • Pacing: The rate of storytelling in this film is as deliberate as the nature of the work its characters are doing.  And while it doesn’t trudge as slowly as say, Tinker Taylor, it does feel like a long two hours.
  • Relationships: A Most Wanted Man does not place tremendous importance on the characters relationships with each other, preferring to stick to the facts of the story.  However, one of those facts is that developing relationships, when it comes to spy work, are entirely for the sake of exploiting.  This fact is more important to the film than the actual interactions of its characters.  This isn’t even a particularly bad point against the film (again, I love its procedural realism) and there are a few moments that are more tender.  It’s simply to say that it doesn’t necessarily provide the kind of narrative that mainstream audiences may expect from a spy movie.

Overall:

A Most Wanted Man is a solid spy film, with a terrific cast of character actors who all bring their A-Game.  Its calculated pace may be a little slow for some, but it does contain enough plot, subtext, and ethical dilemmas to be an entirely engaging film for discerning viewers.

Rating: 7.5/10