By Nancy Chan
All spy movies worth their salt have to feature betrayal, given competing interests, geopolitics and the clandestine nature of intelligence gathering.
A Most Wanted Man succeeds, with betrayals galore and confidences made and lost. Based on a John Le Carre novel, A Most Wanted Man is quietly absorbing with strong characters inhabiting their roles with aplomb.
The film is the last one that Philip Seymour Hoffman completed before his untimely passing and it's a meaty one for him, playing Gunther Bachmann as the Intel chief in Hamburg running a small shop of spies in the wake of September 11. With an uneven German accent Hoffman plays Gunther as weary but not jaded. He's a hang-doggy, overweight spy whose obvious ease around whisky and ciggies seem all too authentic.
The plot is clean and not as convoluted as one would expect in a spy film - we get a Chechen Russian who may be a terrorist threat, a refugee lawyer determined to help him, an Islamic academic suspected of funneling funds to jihadists, and in the background, German security operatives and a toothy CIA agent pushing our man in Hamburg for more intelligence than he is, at first, prepared to give.
Despite his gruff exterior, Hoffman's Gunther is determined to do the right thing and protect the innocents and make deals in search of bigger and guiltier fish. At one point, he even says it takes a minnow to catch a barracuda. Somewhere along the way, personal connections and bigger fish than barracudas, lead to trouble.
There are a few quibbles I have to mention - blond, glamorous Rachel McAdams as the lawyer doesn't persuade me for a second in the role, and her character's gullibility has to be seen to be believed (she is convinced of her client's truthfulness after he strips to review marks on his back - it HAS to be evidence of torture - by whom and for what reason she never questions).
Willem Dafoe as the banker who gets caught up in the action is always reliably slick and edgy. Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin plays the Chechen on the run. No fault of the soulful actor, who is mysteriously silent for much of the film, but why director Anton Corbijn asked him to play the character as a complete naif, passive to his fate is odd, and it would have been more satisfying , more subtle to give us a more nuanced Issa.
Visually Hamburg is used well as a backdrop for all these machinations, the port, little shops and bars adding grit. Some shots of the city bring to mind the thought of how one how one small Intel unit is expected to monitor a city this large for terrorist threats. There are some smart visual metaphors - -Issa in an empty apartment throwing paper airplanes against a plastic tarp - the sense of impotence and opacity comes through. To beat the heat or boredom, get into the theatre and get your spy game on, to find out who really is the most wanted man.