Philip Seymour Hoffman Blogathon – A Most Wanted Man (2014) review

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This review is part of Epileptic Moondancer’s PSH blogathon. I selected the second last completed movie by Hoffman before his death. He died a week after the premiere of the film at the Sundance Film Festival.

A Most Wanted Man

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A Chechen Muslim illegally immigrates to Hamburg, where he gets caught in the international war on terror.

It seems that spy movies in Hollywood often fall into two camps, the high-octane action thrillers a la James Bond and Jason Bourne, or the slow-burn, analytical style you’d find in John le Carré‘s work. This one falls into the latter, and I feel that one must have a certain patience to fully appreciate these kind of slow-burn film. The last film based on le Carré’s work I saw was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The main draw for me to see that one was Gary Oldman. Similarly, I was drawn to see this for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role. It’s set in the city of Hamburg, Germany, where my late mother went to college for a couple of years.

The film opens with a mysterious hooded man sneaking into the city whom we later learn is a half-Chechen, half-Russian refugee, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). An espionage team led by Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) suspects from Russian intelligence that Issa is a potentially dangerous terrorist. There’s also a matter of a Muslim philanthropist the team is monitoring as there’s reasons to believe he might be funneling funds to terrorist activities.

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Honestly, the way the plot unfolds is pretty slow and I had to turn on the caption. It’s something I wish I could’ve done when I was watching ‘Tinker Tailor‘ on the big screen as the plot was pretty complex for my little brain to discern. But what’s fascinating to me is how the whole spying thing seems rather uneventful. For the most part, it’s a lot of eavesdropping, observing, and a whole lot of talking. No shootouts, foot/car/boat chase or physical fighting for a good chunk of the film. The protagonist Günther isn’t exactly built for THAT kind of action, though he did punch a guy for being abrasive to a woman at a bar, but that’s about it. Yet the story was still quite engrossing and it kept me curious to find out just who this Issa guy is. One of the main reasons is Hoffman’s acting.

It still pains me to realize he’s gone. He was such a skilled thespian who could *disappear* into his roles. Here he totally became the character — a chain-smoking, world-weary, astute, yet compassionate intelligence agent, complete with a believable German accent. Even his voice sounded different, slightly lower than I usually hear him speak, and he managed not to overdo the accent that might resort to simply an impersonation. It’s a testament to his charisma as an actor that I enjoyed watching him do mundane office stuff or simply conversing with people.

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McAdams with Dobrygin

As I mentioned above, this film doesn’t paint a glamorous life of a spy. It’s a grounded, more realistic look at the business of espionage where everyone has secrets and it’s all about maneuvering through shrewd, calculating and duplicitous people so you don’t fall into their trap. Apparently John le Carré was a member of British Intelligence at some point, so the plot definitely rang true. I have to admit I had to really pay attention and try not to miss any details. It was rewarding as you became invested in the journey, though the ending was quite a frustrating one. Not that it was badly-written, but it’s more about me expecting a hopeful ending that’s tied neatly with a bow. Well, if you don’t like endings that get you all riled up, this is not a movie for you.

This marks the first Anton Corbijn film I saw, but looking at his filmography, the Dutch filmmaker seems to specialize in slow-burn, measured thrillers (Control, The American). So I guess he’s the perfect director to adapt le Carré’s work. He assembled a pretty solid supporting cast here, starting with the always watchable Robin Wright. She had a key role as an American diplomatic attaché who also took a keen interest in both of Günther’s cases. I enjoyed watching two excellent character actors bantering and outsmarting each other. As a German banker, Willem Dafoe played quite an understated role here, which kinda messed with my head a bit as I kept expecting him to do something totally bonkers.

I was quite impressed by Russian actor Dobrygin in his English-language debut. I actually thought he was a UK actor as he has one of those familiar faces. It’s key for his role to keep the audience guessing whether he’s a good or bad guy and he certainly pulled that off. He kept us at a distance but somehow able to garner our sympathy. I hope to see more of his work so hopefully Hollywood would cast him in more English-speaking roles. As for Rachel McAdams, though she did her best, somehow I didn’t quite buy her in this role. I guess I pictured someone with a bit more edge as an immigration lawyer, someone like Noomi Rapace perhaps? 

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As the film gives us a glimpse into the bureaucracy and intricacy of espionage, it’s apparent that it’s a world full of gray and not much black/white. “To Make the World a Safer Place” is a line uttered in a couple of key scenes by two different characters. It may sound like a simplistic, even clichéd line, but the second time I heard it, I realized the significance of it and what it was intended to be. This film astutely illustrates that in the world of secret intelligence, nothing is ever what it seems to be.

This film is not for everyone as the deliberately slow pace might be considered boring to some. I can’t lie that there are times I feel it’s perhaps too slow-moving, though the quiet moments are still charged with suspense as the stakes get higher and higher. The stunning cinematography, especially the night shots, give a foreboding, atmospheric feel that help immerse you into this world of intrigue. The thematic elements and relevant subject matter definitely stay with you after the end credits. I highly recommend this for fans of slow-burn espionage films, but even if you’re not, it’s still well worth a watch just for Mr. Hoffman’s electrifying performance.

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Have you seen A Most Wanted Man? Well, what did you think?