‘A Most Wanted Man’: An unworthy farewell to a great actor

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For 21st Century Media

“A Most Wanted Man” offers the latest adaptation of a John le Carré spy novel.
Gunter Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is the head of an elite German anti-terrorism squad. Operating in surreptitious fashion, this Hamburg-based unit does whatever the German constitution precludes the government from doing officially. In the aftermath of 9/11, the crew infiltrates the local Muslim community.
Since this film is derived from a le Carré tome, you can forget about the protagonist being a dashing permutation of James Bond. Dispense with any expectations that the film will feature newfangled gadgetry, sophisticated ju-jitsu maneuvers, dramatic shoot-outs, or super-speedy customized cars. There is no voluptuous femme fatale bearing a double entendre moniker like Honey Ryder, emerging from the sea in a skimpy bikini.
Instead of being a hunky sex symbol, Bachmann is a plodding bureaucrat. He recognizes that low-level terrorists are of nugatory consequence. If arrested, they can be readily replaced by their supervisors. So, he tries to identify these small players and allow them to act unimpeded, but monitor them closely. All this is inspired by the hope that they will eventually lead him to those at the apex of the terrorist hierarchy.
Gunter’s modus operandi puts him at odds with a local policeman, Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock). Whereas Gunter favors a slow, systematic approach, Dieter wants to lock up every suspected Muslim terrorist. An intense personal and professional rivalry has emerged between the two men. At one juncture, Mohr snidely refers to a botched operation in Beirut, which he attributes to Gunter’s supposed failure to timely intervene.
Bear in mind that Mohammed Atta and his cohorts planned the 9/11 attacks right in Hamburg. Much of the success of the attack on the World Trade Center is ascribed to the lack of coordination between various counter-terrorist entities.
Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim immigrant who turns up in Hamburg. He has been severely tortured by Russian officials, who extract a confession from Karpov. Does this confession have any basis in reality or is it the product of coercion?
Based on his forced confession, Karpov has been classified as an escaped militant jihadist. In his effort to obtain asylum, Karpov seeks the help of Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a committed human rights attorney.
Bachmann believes that Karpov will eventually lead him to Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). Dr. Abdullah maintains a public image as an academic, who runs philanthropies. However, Bachmann is convinced that the widely-respected Dr. Abdullah is actually funding terrorist operations.
Writing under a literary cognomen, the works of John le Carré are informed by his personal experience as a member of Britain’s MI-5 and later MI-6. Among his assignments, he posed as a political consul in Hamburg. When Kim Philby betrayed the covers of various British agents to the KGB, le Carré’s career as an intelligence agent came to an abrupt end.
The spy novels of le Carré are marked by their moral ambiguity and often feature unflattering portrayals of Western espionage functionaries. Rather than being dominated by physical action, he presents nuanced psychological thrillers, which focus on the minutia of spycraft. The tone, pacing, and perspective of his books are the antithesis of those that pervade the writing of Ian Fleming’s spy novels.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Fleming’s novels had great inherent cinematicity and were readily adapted into the action-filled James Bond series. By contrast, le Carré’s novels have been adapted into thoughtful, character-driven works. These include a six-hour BBC mini-series, “Smiley’s People,” as well as films like “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “The Constant Gardener.”
The book, “A Most Wanted Man,” is a carefully-observed critique of the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition, the participation of international banks in money laundering, and other repugnant practices. The narrative complexity and moral uncertainty of le Carré’s long-form novel is compelling. However, when compressed into the format of a two-hour film, it proves challenging to follow the film’s intricate plotting and the muted iconography. The slow pacing of the narrative eventually becomes tedious.
“A Most Wanted Man” represents the last screen appearance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He was prolific as an actor both on stage and screen, appearing in numerous plays and more than 50 films. Most notably, his lead performance in “Capote” was recognized with an Oscar, Golden Globe, Screen Actor’s Guild Award, and a BAFTA. Hoffman was a husky man with a somewhat gruff natural manner from upstate New York. In uncanny fashion, Hoffman channeled Truman Hoffman, a diminutive, effeminate Southerner. Watching Hoffman in action and capture Capote’s fey, mincing manner that he affected, you immediately forgot just how starkly he differed from the subject. The actor was nominated for three other films, a disarmingly candid C.I.A. operative in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as a parish priest suspected of pederasty in “Doubt,” and as the demagogic leader of a cult, loosely based on Scientology in “The Master.” The diversity of his characterizations was stunning.
Hoffman struggled with drug addiction in his early adulthood. He had seemingly conquered his demons and had been sober for decades. His unexpected death at 46 from a mixed drug overdose serves as a cautionary tale.
“A Most Wanted Man” isn’t a bad film. Unfortunately, it ends up being far from a great film. A superb actor by any measure, it is a shame that Hoffman’s last film wasn’t better.

“A Most Wanted Man”
**1/2 R (for language) 122 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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