by Philip Price
Anton Corbijn's “A Most Wanted Man” is one of those movies I can appreciate, but will likely never have the desire to sit through again. Funny enough, you could say the same of his previous film, “The American,” which was my introduction to the filmmaker. “The American” was a surprisingly restrained film in almost every aspect of its being - from the images we saw, the music that complimented them and on to the central performance from George Clooney. In many ways it was a break into the studio system for Corbijn while showing the suits he very much had his own way of telling a story. If “A Most Wanted Man” does anything with this kind of power it actually plays more in tune with what we have grown accustomed to in the genre of spy thrillers while still keeping the pacing at a slow boil and the action to a minimum. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this of course, especially when you have the source material of John le Carré to work with and as well pedigreed a cast as is on display here. By virtue of its cast and credentials alone this would strike most as an interesting film, but as a mature audience you come to actually appreciate the film for the line of thinking it promotes. It is a slow, methodical film that deals as much in the details of its plot as it represents the perceived perception of man in his many different incarnations. This theme, while heavily influenced by the title, is demonstrated in Corbijn's film by how individuals may be portrayed in certain circles as perfectly respectable, harmless even yet in others are wanted for possible terror motives. Obviously, the film depicts an extreme case of this nature, but it still conveys the necessary needs to see the bigger picture and describes how recognizing the smaller aspects might compliment said bigger picture rather than going bullet by bullet and crossing them off. It is an intriguing approach and one that makes you consider the nature of absolutes while never painting any of its multiple characters as necessarily bad or evil, but simply as people trying to do a job and come off as successful as possible. It is impossible to facilitate a fair and unbiased opinion in every situation, but the film’s characters strive for this ideal in each of their actions.
In the beginning a man climbs out of the ocean and onto a port in Hamburg. From here we see his story begin to unfold. There are spies, more specifically there is Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team that includes Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), Maximilian (Daniel Brühl), Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Rasheed (Kostja Ullmann). They are the team that is resorted to when the German government needs something done that isn't necessarily legal within German law. They are after a man named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who is a well-renowned Muslim speaker. Maximilian notices the man who emerges from the water as he scours the video surveillance around Hamburg allowing Bachmann and his team to zero in on this half-Chechen, half-Russian refugee and see if his new presence in their city might be of suspect. The powers that be who are running the German government and who deal in press releases are eager for Bachmann and his crew to take down this suspicious individual so that they may be patted on the back for doing their job effectively, but Bachmann is more interested in how this man, clearly hoping to integrate himself into Hamburg's Islamic community, might aid him in capturing the bigger fish. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is seeking refuge in the humble hopes of starting a new life and separating himself from the divides that destroy his country and the stigmas that surround his people. Karpov came to Hamburg in order to cash out some of the money his father left him and disappear into anonymity, though he struggles with the fact his father was a tyrant and dishonorable man and the money he'd be taking would indeed have blood on it. He finds asylum and is then put in contact with humanitarian lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) who assists him in contacting banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Unbeknownst to Issa both Annabel and Tommy begin working with Bachmann in order to protect their client in hopes that Issa will be a successful pawn in bringing about proof that Abdullah is funding terrorism.
Naturally, there is a certain level of interest around this film due to the fact it will be the last big screen appearance in a leading role by Hoffman. It is somewhat disconcerting to see the late actor smoking and drinking in almost every scene to the point his disheveled character clearly doesn't have a regard for his appearance anymore, but has devoted himself wholly to the task at hand. That said, if this were a Hoffman performance under normal circumstances he would be praised for integrating these small details into the character that develop the story beneath the surface without delivering it within the narrative. With his look and mannerisms alone Hoffman inspires high-minded conversation and this type of facade only does more to push forth the type of man his character is. Bachmann is a man searching for reason in the world and hoping to aid in striking a balance. The unfortunate side is that of course this can be an unreasonable and cruel society that is grounded on the importance of the individual and not the true improvement of the quality of life or to make the world a better place, as Bachmann so coyly returns the justification of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), the face of the Americans here, for reason as to why all the damage they cause and leave in their path makes their actions worth it. It is through Hoffman's character that we feel the labor of orchestration it takes to connect the dots that might eventually lead us to his larger goal, while the pressure is on in the form of time constraints who don't care for the patience of espionage or that some factors will rely solely on chance. Hoffman carries the film with a sluggish demeanor, his face constantly hanging, sulking through his accent, but he carries the film nonetheless. Of the other high profile names here McAdams is given the most to do and handles it (especially the accent) with much better care than expected. Both Wright and Dafoe are given little to do outside of playing archetypes though Dafoe is strangely engaging in his short scenes while it is unknowns Dorbrygin and Mehdi Dehbi as Jamal that deliver strong showings as the more complex characters in play. Daniel Brühl also shows up for a few moments, but is given nothing to do which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just slightly odd.
If the two films of Corbijn's that I've seen so far are any indication it is clear the director has a very cold and precise style about him. Both this and “The American” possess an almost stale or dated aesthetic that places them not only in a world of their own, but gives the kind of detached feeling one must have to operate in the field the film is documenting. It is clearly a choice that allows the audience not to get caught up in the look or style of the film (yet in doing this the film ultimately has style), but instead it’s straight-forward and rather plain approach mimics the qualities of the personas our characters put upon the world. This slightly under-the-radar style also helps to compliment the way in which our characters choose to operate as opposed to what we might typically think of when someone classifies a film as a spy thriller. “A Most Wanted Man” is sly and smooth in its execution and effectively demonstrates how the powers of strategy and intelligence can be granted submission. This is, of course, until the outliers have run out of patience and resort to more blunt methods of getting what they want in which we come to hate them for backhanding our protagonist. It is to the films credit that we indeed become caught up in the tension that is held in a pen and not in a gun, but it is also clearly making a statement about the over-eagerness of those in charge of public relations who need instant gratification rather than a more satisfying and effective payoff that might come given more time. The film is engaging due to the process these characters take on and live their lives by while, as I said earlier, never simply "hunting the bad guy" in typical fashion but rather truly hoping they are good people and people who they will not have to bring in. Sure, I imagine it can only be gratifying when someone you've been watching for months or even years allows themselves to be caught, but it might almost be more so were they never able to find any concrete proof the person had negative intentions-it would help in making the world a better place much easier it seems. It is in these pockets of insight that we understand many of these people are in situations out of their depth, but never digging for something that isn't there and reaching for the highest form of truth is an action to commended in an age of spies, terrorists and secret organizations.