‘A Most Wanted Man’ Review: The Pained Sadness of International Espionage

'A Most Wanted Man'

Movie Rating:


At their best, John le Carré adaptations strip the espionage genre of any and all glamour. They present the spy game as a series of meetings and stakeouts by depressed alcoholics who hate their lives, yet end up doing vastly important work for the global community. ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is the type of movie that could make even James Bond hang up his PPK if he ever caught a screening.

The greatest pleasure and pain of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is that the film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles. It’s a remarkable performance that only Hoffman could have delivered, and it illustrates what a dark empty hole the actor left in the industry when he died. No one else could play this role in this way now that he’s gone.

Hoffman stars as a German spy whose shuffled walk and potentially deadly breathing patterns say everything you need to know about the mountains of shit he’s had to shovel in his life. He’s a beaten man, but a brilliant spy. Hoffman dominates the movie, and the depression, paranoia and fruitless dream of redemption he effortlessly presents in every pained sigh or desperate round of backroom politics defines the film as a whole.

As with all John le Carré works, the plot is complex and tricky. Characters are introduced and small events add up in a flurry of confusion amidst the dry drama of mundane reality. It’s hard to predict where the story is going beyond the certainty that it will end poorly for everyone, until the author’s clockwork plotting snaps into place and punches viewers in the gut.

Boiled down to its most basic elements, the film is about Hoffman’s battered spy Günther Bachmann following potential terrorists in Hamburg. He hopes that he might be able to turn them into allies in an attempt for personal, political and national redemption. The primary subject is a recent Russian/Chechen refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) with a pained thousand-yard stare and a mysterious past. He’s being helped by Rachel McAdams’ morally ambiguous lawyer and Willem Dafoe’s uncomfortable banker. Then Robin Wright steps in as a CIA agent sent to supervise the case, whose motives are never entirely clear until everything comes crashing down. All the bits and pieces are small but have big implications, and the way they come together is nothing short of devastating.

The filmmaker tasked with pulling the beats together is Anton Corbijn, a former photographer and music video director who segued into a career of powerfully depressing movies like ‘Control’ and ‘The American‘. Corbijn has considerable visual skill, yet wisely never lets his camerawork overwhelm this picture. The best way to describe the visual aesthetic of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is stylishly dull. The colors are washed out, the camera is mostly static, and the characters dictate the framing and editing more than the drama. However, Corbijn is in complete control, and when he needs to add a little umph for the sake of tension, he delivers some stunning sequences, such as a psychologically manipulative interrogation scene.

Much like the film that remains the best John le Carré adaptation, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is a small movie, just one with a deeply dramatic and moving sendoff. It’s carefully wrought in a way that might not seem deliberate at first, but always has a specific endgame in mind. This is not a movie that could be described as thrilling in a manner one expects from the genre. It’s intelligent, dark, prescient and ultimately devastating – a feel-bad drama amidst a sea of popcorn spectacle. It’s well worth seeing for the small goals it accomplishes and the central performance from Hoffman, which showcases what made him such an invaluable presence in American film and reminds us why he will be so dearly missed. Nothing about ‘A Most Wanted Man’ will brighten your day, but much of it is enlightening, and sometimes that’s more satisfying.

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