It's impossible to watch the character anchoring Anton Corbijn's cool, clear-eyed film version of "A Most Wanted Man" without forgetting the fate of the bleary-eyed but fantastically vital actor who plays him.
Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose in February after completing work on what became his final starring role in the movies. As Gunther Bachmann, the patient, alert German intelligence expert created by novelist John le Carre, Hoffman smokes constantly. The character's an unhealthy specimen, a drinker, out of shape, though his mind is needle-sharp.
Filmed largely in Hamburg, Germany, under gray skies, the movie is good, solid le Carre. It's chilly yet humane, and human-scaled, uninterested in the lethal glories of technology, attentive to the procedural aspect of what Bachmann and his associates do for a living and how they do it in the wake of 9/11, in a world mired in multidirectional suspicion.
Hoffman speaks in German-accented English throughout "A Most Wanted Man," his questions sounding like abrupt, nonquestioning answers, often in very low tones. By my recollection there are two instances in the course of Corbijn's film, cut to fit from le Carre's 2008 novel by screenwriter Andrew Bovell, when Bachmann loses control. The first time is perhaps two seconds in length, in a flash, during an interrogation. The second comes at the end of the picture, in the open air. Hoffman understands Bachmann or, rather, understood him; he knows what happens when an awkward, recessive person allows composure — the mask — to fall. It's a strange sight, difficult to watch, because we're suddenly confronted with the secret, rageful inner life of a man on the outside.
Bachmann's anti-terrorism team picks up a blip on the radar in the opening scenes of "A Most Wanted Man." The blip: a half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim known to Interpol as an illegal immigrant and a militant jihadist. Why has this man, Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), come to Germany, to the city where the 9/11 terrorists lived for a time?
Karpov is not what he seems, of course; people are only what they seem in Tom Clancy spy novels, not le Carre's. The terrorist is also a victim of torture. A human rights lawyer, shrewdly played by Rachel McAdams, enters the picture, along with a shady banker (Willem Dafoe) whose clients include the maybe-terrorist's father. Homayoun Ershadi portrays a Muslim academic who may be a voice of moderation in the post-9/11 world. Or he may not. Bachmann needs Karpov to find out. Robin Wright is perfectly opaque as the CIA operative who has known Bachmann for years. For actors, le Carre means acting naturally under all manner of pretenses. This cast is shrewdly chosen, up and down.
Corbijn made "Control" (compellingly bleak, meticulously composed) and then "The American" (also meticulous but pretty insufferable). The atmosphere of the latter is gone in "A Most Wanted Man." Like any le Carre project, this one requires some rhythmic readjustment in a viewer, some patience. The events are complicated, though not complicated by cheap thrills or easy politics. It's a film of interest rather than throttling suspense. By the end, however, when Bachmann's future depends on a very simple nonviolent series of events, Corbijn's methodical approach pays off. And we care. We care about the protagonist's outcome.
And we mourn the actor who makes it matter.
"A Most Wanted Man" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language)
Running time: 2:01
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun