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

PSH_Blogathon

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?

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38 thoughts on “Philip Seymour Hoffman Blogathon – A Most Wanted Man (2014) review

    1. Brilliant indeed Michael. I knew he’d be good but he’s extra excellent here, totally disappeared into the role of a German spy.

  1. A most great read Ruth 🙂 I agree with pretty much everything you said, I think I even gave it the same score!

    “This film astutely illustrates that in the world of secret intelligence, nothing is ever what it seems to be.”

    Indeed. I loved this movie, and I loved Hoffman’s overworked, grumbly character

    1. Thanks Jordan, and great idea for a blogathon man! I think the fact that le Carre was an actual spy himself made the story believable and intriguing. Hoffman played the curmudgeon character so well, it’s a very immersive performance.

  2. Same score for me Ruth. It’s funny, I’ve always been mixed on PSH but I really loved his performance here. Is it just me or did it seem like he was channeling some of his inner demons for the role? Very effective either way.

    1. Glad to hear Keith! I don’t always like all PSH films but I always like him in it, he’s very charismatic. It’s very possible he channel his inner demons as you said, but his heart was in the right place, I think Günther is a good man in a very treacherous business.

      1. You’re right. And by ‘channelling demons’ I mainly meant in how he played the character. The steady drinking, smoking, and the frazzled, tired appearance. It was perfect for the character but it really stuck with me after his unfortunate death.

        1. Oh yeah I know what you meant, his character & PSH himself definitely didn’t live a healthy life. I think some actors took their craft too seriously and it became overly-consuming y’know, same w/ Heath Ledger. It’s so sad really, I mean no job in the world is worth THAT kind of dedication (or obsession) that could cost you your life.

  3. It’s on my to watch list on Netflix, funny enough I’ve just watched Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy; somehow I totally missed seeing it in a theater. I thought it’s great and looking forward to watching this one. I wasn’t a fan of Corbijn’s The American though, it’s just too slow and no payoff what so ever.

    1. Hi Ted! I should rewatch ‘Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy’ again as I was a bit bored by it seeing it on the big screen, partly because I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying. But if you liked that one, I think you’ll enjoy this too. The cast isn’t as glamorous as that one, but the story is pretty darn good. Not interested in The American, not fond of Clooney.

  4. Fine review, Ruth! I have not seen this and I’m not sure why I’m waiting other than I’m not in the mood for slow-complicated espionage stories. That’s lame. I blame it on summer. 😉

    1. Ahah, totally understand Cindy! Better save this for Fall/Winter, a moody film for a somber day 🙂 But it’s really good, I think you’d like this one.

  5. It’s so, so, so sad that he’s gone. Like…it’s awful. He’s really great here. Like you said…this is slow. Corbijn’s other work is better, overall. I liked this one, but it bordered on unfollowable in parts, and the who thing just didn’t come together like I wanted it to.

    1. Hi Drew! I have to admit it’s not the easiest film to digest and I don’t usually have the patience for such a s-l-o-w film, but yet I was quite engrossed in this. Largely thanks to Hoffman’s acting and a mostly-impressive turn by the supporting cast.

  6. Control is actually not a thriller but a bio-pic on Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis. This is the only film of Corbijn that I haven’t seen so far as I’m more familiar with his work in photos and as a video director.

  7. Lovely review Ruth. You know I really liked this movie. It was slow paced, but superbly acted, especially by Hoffman. McAdams didn’t bother me. We lost a true icon when we lost Hoffman. Every time I see a film of his I still get choked up that he’s gone and I won’t see him in another film. Probably the best actor of his generation. Period.

    1. Hi Mariah, yes indeed it’s superbly-acted. As for McAdams, I think she was ok here I just don’t really see her in this role. Yeah, it’s so sad Mr Hoffman is gone… I wouldn’t argue that he’s one of the best actors of his generation. So much talent and dedication.

  8. Tom

    Loved this film, and PSH was absolutely superb. One of my favorite movie lines from that year comes from this movie: “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.” There is just so much menace in this film, really my kind of picture. Great to see it reviewed for the blogathon.

    1. Hi there Tom! PSH is always great in everything but he’s especially superb here wasn’t he? Oh yes that is one bloody great quote! I’m glad I finally got to see this film, but I knew I wanted to wait to rent it so I could watch it w/ caption, the plot is pretty complex and w/ all the accents it would’ve been tough to understand it all without it.

      1. Tom

        What do you mean with caption? like, the subtitles? I am curious to know what this is, maybe it could have helped me out as well! Lol!

        1. Yes subtitles! 😀 I often turn that on whenever I’m watching a complicated movie, esp when there are foreign accents involved. I would’ve enjoyed ‘Tinker, Tailor’ more if there were subtitles on the big screen, ahah.

          1. Tom

            Great idea. Maybe I should have done that with TT as well, I gave up on that about 20 mins in. Densely complex movie, that was. I should give it another go.

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  10. I think I must have read this over on the other site. Well done. I didn’t expect much from it but really enjoyed it, lots of muddy layers.

  11. The slower pace doesn’t sound like my thing but I generally do like espionage type movies. Maybe I’ll eventually check this out for PSH’s performance … and that german accent haha. Good review!

    1. You could say that this is the *genuine* espionage film, as in reality, a spy’s life is probably not nearly as glamorous as James Bond, ahah. Give it a shot at some point, you might enjoy it, Eddie.

  12. Although I’ve been meaning to see this one I still have not done so. Liked earlier work by Corbijn, so should be checking this one out as PSH was awesome.

    1. Hi Nostra! If you like Corbijn’s earlier work then this one is a must see. PSH is on top form here, though he’s generally excellent.

  13. Nice review. I LOVED everything about this movie. Hoffman easily gets my vote for Best Actor last year, and the slow-burn pace of the film works so well. Thrilled that you liked it!

    1. I don’t mind slow-burn film if the story and cast are able to keep my interest. That is the case here, and Hoffman was so good! It made me sad watching it as we won’t see any more of his work now.

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