A Most Wanted Man, 2014.
Directed by Anton Corbijn.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Brühl, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Derya Alabora and Nina Hoss.
A Chechen Muslim illegally immigrates to Hamburg, where he gets caught in the international war on terror.
This review contains references to the film’s end scene which some may see as a spoiler. However, I assure you this review does not give away any details of plot.
Rarely has a single word, whether mumbled, spoken, or shouted captured both a character’s frustration and encapsulated everything a movie is about as when Philip Seymour Hoffman screams “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” at the end of A Most Wanted Man. The success of the film essentially hangs in the balance of the audience caring why he screams this one word and what the future holds for him after having let it out, and without the audience feeling the frustration and utter dejection he feels, the film does not truly succeed.
All films, one could argue, live and die by their ending for there is nothing worse than a good film being let down by a weak denouement, but in A Most Wanted Man Corbijn builds up for two solid hours without any scene which one could call traditionally ‘exciting’ yet every scene is brimming with detail, character, plot, and procedure and the excitement comes from watching the film making craft. The ending is a sum of every part which has been carefully, precisely, and at times painstakingly put into place, not one of which is wasted or needless; every piece is as important as the next and A Most Wanted Man shows us every single piece.
Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man just may be the most essential movie about espionage I’ve seen, for the release of anger Hoffman lets out hits far harder than any bullet to the head, car explosion, or agents crashing through windows could ever do. No other movie I’ve seen captures what it must be like to work in the world of counter intelligence and portray a (I assume) true account of the inner workings of espionage. There are no car chases, shoot outs or dangling from buildings (these are all fine in the right movie, don’t get me wrong) but this film is the slowest of slow burns I have seen for a long time, making the recent adaption of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy look like it’s moving at a pace seen in a Michael Bay production.
There is no ticking time-bomb to find nor is any major city explicitly in danger in the storyline and you don’t have an all-action finale. The film is about finding assets, following them, gathering intelligence, and using them to get to, hopefully, someone else; the film is also about trust, deceit, relationships, tactics, and foreign policy. All of these elements make up the everyday life of Günther Bachmann, played by Hoffman in what may just be his best performance to date in a leading role, and that is saying something. Through great writing and Hoffman’s stellar performance, Bachmann is the type of fully-realised leading character we yearn to see; every aspect of him, from his walk and mannerisms, to his dry sense of humour and the way he holds a cigarette tells us something about the man, yet lets us in on very little, too. We are told he was part of an operation which went wrong in Beirut some years ago, the what and why are never revealed but we know he trusts very few people. Hoffman’s face is so white it’s almost without colour and so expressionless at times we wonder what he looked like before the Beirut incident but will never know.
The film is for mature audiences only and requires you to pay attention and listen. The film introduces a web of characters which Bachmann and his small team based in Hamburg, who do the work German law won’t allow, must decide who is innocent, who is a suspect, and crucially, who can be used as a pawn in this game of political chess which extends to Bachmann himself. The story slowly builds with each player coming in, being investigated, and used as and when needed but Bachmann’s tactics are always to gather intel, not to bag and gag without just cause; that is left to the ranks above him.
In January I made a short list of my most anticipated films of 2014 and this was high on that list for no other reason than it being Anton Corbijn’s follow up to The American, a film which rocked my cinematic world when it was released in 2010 and one which subsequently I think of as being one of the best films of the last decade. Corbijn’s style reflects his career as a photographer which was used to perfection in the stripped down narrative of The American, but his work is more subtle in this, his third feature where narrative is essential; I think using Hamburg as a location really enhances the production’s stylistic qualities for it’s a city we rarely photographed on the big screen and offers architecture we’re not used to seeing. In the director’s own words:
“My background is photography so I don’t use studios, I work outdoors, and I always use walls, walls are my favourite. I look at architecture and Hamburg is a really interesting city … a lot of contrast. We erred on the more lower class areas, they always have a little more texture.” – Anton Corbijn
The film, ultimately, belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman and marks one of his last roles in a career tragically cut short. It cannot be overstated just how good he is in the movie and he owns the role of Bachmann the same way we talk about other recent performers like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Lincoln. It is a remarkable performance in a quite remarkable film, and to say the film is one of the year’s best is one thing, but a greater accolade would be to consider it as one of the best examples in its genre.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.