Ben Affleck and spy movies (or superhero movies, for that matter) should be kept as far as part as possible. Mr. Affleck and others, such as our beloved Michael Bay, have done much harm to harm the action film genre and its various offshoots (spy film, superhero movie, sci-fi, etc.)—so much so that, in fact, RCGS was a little bit leery of watching the last great role of Philip Seymour Hoffmann and one of the most recent John Lecarré spy films: A Most Wanted Man. However, dear reader, I was immediately engrossed by a riveting and intelligent thriller wrapped in a hauntingly melancholy postmodern coating.
A Most Wanted Man is set in Hamburg Germany in the framework of the post-9/11 European and American security states and their opposing methods of dealing with terrorism—the American intelligence community, being, of course, much more aggressive than its softer European cousins. Günther Bachmann, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an agent running an illegal but nonetheless officially sanctioned German intelligence operation that takes an aggressive approach to tracking and capturing terrorists. Hoffman is accompanied by Rachel McAdams, who plays Annabel Richter, a concerned but naïve social worker who is helping Islamic immigrants become legalized, and William Defoe, who plays a depressed wealthy banker who has the funds of a mysterious Muslim Russian-Chechen who has arrived in Hamburg.
Everyone says that Philip Seymour Hoffman was the greatest living actor until his unfortunate death in 2014, and, in this case, everyone is right. Even when Hoffmann’s own moroseness and obese sloppiness pokes out of the character Günther; it, at the same time, enhances his performance rather than hindering it. Hoffman, like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, merely has to have the camera on him to mesmerize the audience, drawing us into the depressed but nonetheless alluring world of this character. The best supporting actor of A Most Wanted Man is Hamburg itself, a gloomy postmodern European port city that creaks with ennui from the immigrant slums to the posh residences of its bankers. Without Hoffman, the cinematography and the clever, layered script, the movie could have drifted into Affleck-dom or merely becoming a lecture on the need for unrestricted immigration.
A Most Wanted Man begins as a seeming tear-jerker story about friendly, moderate Muslims who are migrating en masse into Europe but are coming happily to work in degrading labor jobs and to “spice up” the miserable and (literally) sterile German culture. A lesser movie would have Abdullah and Issa, the two suspected terrorists, as initially suspicious, however, in the end, deeply sympathetic characters who are wrongly accused by some chauvinistic Western man, but in the end are happily exonerated from their crimes—the real terrorists would turn out to be Christians or libertarians or homeschoolers. However, as the movie develops, we quickly learn that Abdullah is some sort of terrorist (with whose cause Günter sympathizes) and that he is planning to channel some of Issa’s funds to a terrorist organization. However, rather than ending with a neat apprehension by German intelligence, there is a powerful plot twist at the ending that serves as a profoundly ambiguous but nonetheless profound symbol of the ruthless methods not only of terrorists but of the security state itself.
A Most Wanted Man is not a “popcorn flick” intended to shock and awe the audience’s senses even though it has enough relatively apprehensible mystery and aggressive brandishing of firearms not to bore someone looking for a good action movie. However, the movie is, at the same time, deeply contemplative. There are many more minutes of crafty and morose dialogue than there are car chases or shootouts, and much of the weight and appeal of the movie comes from the numbly nihilistic shots of Hamburg. There are a few brief nude scenes according to IMDB’s “parents’ guide,” but, as I was watching the movie while running on a treadmill in the middle of the night, I seemed have to missed them. Ultimately, this gentleman scholar can only recommend the movie with much gusto but a little caution.