There are many reasons to watch A Most Wanted Man. Director Anton Corbijn’s take on John le Carré’s 2008 novel is tense, twisty and compellingly gloomy. The film offers genuine suspense but also an over-arching grimness — you know that no matter how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, this story won’t end well. And above all, there is the magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last lead role.
A Most Wanted Man is based in Hamburg, where the attacks of 9/11 were hatched by Mohammad Atta and his associates. The shame of completely missing that nefarious plot still hangs over the intelligence eco-system in the city. Hoffman is Günther Bachmann, a pudgy, frayed German intelligence officer.
Bachmann heads a unit that exists because ‘German intelligence needs a job to be done that German law won’t let it do.’ A bearded, scarred, stateless half-Russian, half-Chechen who may or may not be a jihadist comes to the city. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game that ends, as it must, in tragedy.
Corbijn builds the puzzle with a deliberate precision. His pace is measured and almost clinical. But Bachmann’s character centers the narrative with a potent humanity. There is nothing glamorous about the melancholic Bachmann — through the film, he takes swigs of whiskey as though his life depends on it. Bachmann has a deep understanding of human nature. He also has compassion and an innate integrity. Hoffman is so perfectly pitched as Bachmann that it’s impossible to tell that he’s acting. His face betrays his weariness and yet, Bachmann strives to make the world a better place.
Be warned that you will leave this film with a heavy heart — not only because Bachmann doesn’t find a happy ending (this is not a spoiler — how many espionage movies end with a smile?). But also because Hoffman’s brilliance only makes us aware of how much poorer our lives are without him.