Sadly, we’re running out of new Philip Seymour Hoffman performances to watch.
The actor appears on screen in the final Hunger Games installments, which he’d almost completed shooting at the time of his death in February at age 47. The pilot he made for Showtime, Happyish, will either be recast or just fade away. It’s a uniquely mournful thing, the trickling out of the last bits of work that someone left behind, performances transformed into ghostlike traces. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing A Most Wanted Man, which opened in New York and Los Angeles this weekend and will expand to more cities in the next few weeks.
A Most Wanted Man is Hoffman’s final leading role, and it’s a quiet, superb one. Not that he ever really made a bad movie, or at least, he never did a bad job regardless of the quality of everything around him — but A Most Wanted Man is the type of part that shows off Hoffman’s ability to sink into a character, to find the reverberating humanity in someone who, at first glance, might be easy to overlook. Hoffman played some big, showy parts — Lancaster Dodd, Truman Capote, Lester Bangs — and he played them well. But Günther Bachmann, the shabby spy he embodies in A Most Wanted Man, isn’t that kind of guy, even as he works toward the half-ironic goal to “make the world a better place.”
A Most Wanted Man is a collaboration between a director and writer who are both known for works of finely wrought melancholy. It’s an adaptation of a novel by John le Carré, the great chronicler of moody espionage sagas like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it’s helmed by photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, whose feature debut Control centered on the uneasy, electric life and early death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. A Most Wanted Man’s hero, Günther, the head of a hush-hush anti-terrorism division operating out of Hamburg, is the kind of man who always looks like he’s wearing yesterday’s clothes. He smokes and drinks, pulling out a flask to spike his coffee while meeting with a formidable CIA observer (Robin Wright), cool as ice under the professional smile.
These things, even if not exactly a front, provide a kind of convenient misdirection for Günther, who has cultivated the air of a failure who was shunted off to his post in the port city after his information networks in Beirut were compromised. But Günther is razor sharp under the slipshod exterior, and he’s pursuing two major projects, one long-term and one that lands in his lap. The big fish is Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who runs a charitable organization Günther thinks is also funneling money to Al-Qaeda. The newcomer is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a twentysomething half-Chechen, half-Russian man who arrives in the city either planning something nefarious or looking for asylum.
The film is a post-9/11 drama — Hamburg was where hijacker Mohamed Atta and others planned the attacks, and Günther’s wary of being bulldozed by Wright’s character Martha Sullivan, knowing she’ll put American priorities first and is perfectly capable of disappearing suspects. But A Most Wanted Man is also just a prime le Carré story about the lonely life of a spy, about the toll of trying to make the most moral and effective decision when the world only offers gray areas and dubious options.
Günther may want to do right by his country, but that means diverting other intelligence figures, bribing, coercing, and betraying, constantly making smaller compromises in hopes they’re for the greater good. Among those who wind up in his path are an idealistic lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who takes up Issa’s cause; a bank manager named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose organization has a history of being less discerning about where its holdings came from; and a young informant named Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi).
It’s a twisty, subdued story that demands close attention and that’s built around information rather than action, but it’s Hoffman whose performance gives A Most Wanted Man an extra, tragic heft that has nothing to do with his death and everything to do with the fineness of his portrayal of Günther. Gravelly voiced and wry, Günther thinks he’s seen everything, that he knows the way the world works. And yet, as tense events unfold themselves in the city he’s been stalking, he starts, almost without realizing, to wonder if, for once, he can make a difference — and that can be a dangerous thing when life’s given you good reason to expect the worst. But it’s that glimmer of hope that Hoffman instills in Günther that makes the heart ache in the middle of a story that’s otherwise crisp and cool to the touch.