So yesterday I wrote my list of movies I want to watch this fall, pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to find some of them in theaters. Today I can already cross one of those from my list, thank you Sneak Preview.
"A Most Wanted Man" is a spy-thriller by Anton Corbijn, set in post 9/11 Hamburg. It stars a great ensemble, including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, but most of all, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The movie follows Hoffmans spymaster Günther Bachmann in his efforts to ensnare Homayun Ershadis Abdullah, a charitable and spiritual muslim whom he suspects of funding terrorist organizations under the cover of his philantropic work. The linchpin in Bachmanns plan is Issa Karpov, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin, a half Russian, half Chechen muslim who inherited a large sum of money from his war-criminal father.
Spy movies, particularly those based on stories by John le Carré, such as this one, can be hard to follow, which is part of their appeal. "A Most Wanted Man" is different in that regard. The goal is always clear, even if the movie manages to keep you in the moment very effectively instead of jumping ahead in your mind. Because we know what the outcome has to be, the audience is at liberty to concentrate on every single step of the plan, analyzing each situation for weak points, aspects that can go wrong and possible threats. This makes it less surprising than other movies in the genre, although it still does pull the rug out from under you to great effect at times.
This movie has everything you can imagine in a spy movie. A shady spymaster, shady government officials, a shady bankier, very little in this movie does not come as shady. The movie is well cast even in the smallest roles and gives us good characters throughout. Apparently, Willem Dafoes Tommy Brue is a much larger character in the original book and you can feel that on screen, there is a lot of background hinted here, a character interesting even outside of his role in this story. Similar, although not as extensive, Annabel Richter, played by Rachel McAdams, is drawn with few but effective strokes.
Nevertheless, the real key players here are Hoffmans tired spy and Dobrygins troubled refugee. Karpov is an interesting character. It is never made clear wether he is or isn't a terrorist, or at least was. He might be a trained insurgent, riddled with doubt, or completely innocent, having gone through an inhumane ordeal. Bachmann is the most important character in this whole piece, not only because he is the main character, but also because the whole tone of the movie hinges on him. A movie like this could easily become propaganda, demonizing the enemy in the war on terror, but this one is saved by Hoffman, fuelled by a believe in a soft touch. You get the feeling that he is desperately clinging to his humanity in an inhumane business. One particularly strong scene includes him seamlessly slipping into a very hard stance on terror, intimidating and aggressive, juxtaposing two ways of fighting the war on terror.
The murky swamps of espionage and this covert war are the main themes of this movie, keeping you on edge at all times, because it is clear that in this world, nobody is to be trusted. Like a dark shadow, the other parties involved in this operation loom over Bachmanns shoulders, none of them being more threatening than Robin Wrights Martha Sullivan, embodying the American interest. If you have seen "House of Cards", you already know that she is a force to be reckoned with and that she has a bite to match her bark.
By focusing so heavily on Hoffmanns spymaster, the movie does lack a personal touch on long stretches. Scenes between McAdams and Dobrygin show that there is a more emotional side to this story, but the movie keeps those moments sparse. We are seeing this from Hoffmans point of view, which is a lot darker and cynical.
All in all, the movie has a simple plot for a spy-thriller, but that is not necessarily bad. The emotional detachment could be a problem for some to get into this, but apart from that, this is a brilliantly acted thriller, full of suspense. It also serves as another memorial to Hoffmans genius, which we will sorely miss.