Film Review: A Most Wanted Man

Stylish, dense contemporary spy drama about a suspected terrorist on the loose in 2008 Hamburg has the late Philip Seymour Hoffman again delivering an exceptional performance, here as a rogue German agent determined to stamp out terrorism. A true audie

Perhaps it’s a perfect storm of savvy choices that makes the English-language A Most Wanted Man so satisfying a spy drama, especially as so many films and books have certainly had their way with a genre afflicted with creeping cynicism and diminishing romantic notions. Vet spy author John le Carré, who provided the source material, helped in this de-glamorization of the métier over the years but compensates with a deep understanding of contemporary politics and human nature.

Security issues aside, le Carré with this yarn shows he’s hip to the spy trade’s new challenges today, especially the world battle against Islamic extremists. And screenwriter Andrew Bovell, providing cross-border voices, honors the material with his intelligent, gripping adaptation.

The story begins as the film’s “most wanted” Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a disheveled young half-Chechen/half Russian man, secretly makes his way ashore in Hamburg harbor. His mission is unknown but not his arrival. It’s 2008 and German and American intelligence is on high alert, certainly in Hamburg where, as a title reminds, 9/11 terrorist Mohammad Atta helped strategize the attack.

Whether dangerous terrorist or political refugee, the bearded Karpov, with his chiseled, dark-featured face obscured by a hoodie, looks menacing. His appearance would land him comfortably among the mug shots of the 9/11 terrorist gang.

Among the most ardent seeking Karpov and learning his motives for being in Hamburg is rogue agent Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a driven and obsessed operative, forever in motion and multitasking with booze and cigarettes as fuel. And there’s his murky past, maybe just a blemish: He was relocated to Hamburg after an unspecified Beirut incident propelled the change.

Bachmann works with his loyal team that includes Irna Frey (German star Nina Hoss) and Max (Daniel Brühl); they are the first to pinpoint Karpov’s whereabouts in the city. He also has a valuable informer in Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), who helps the team track Karpov’s movements in Hamburg. But Bachmann is hobbled by the bureaucratic, by-the-book Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who heads a more traditional and less renegade intelligence unit that wants Karpov taken in immediately. But, adding ticking-clock oomph to the plot, Bachmann fights for a few days’ grace so he can dig deeper into the mystery of who’s funding terrorist operations.

Bachmann also has a less nettlesome intelligence ally in tough CIA operative Martha Sullivan (an excellent Robin Wright) and some more establishment German intel colleagues who, unlike Bachmann, do everything by the book.

In his manic anti-terrorist drive, Bachmann is after not only Karpov and knowledge of his mission but how terrorists and their activities are being funded. The answer may or may not lie with wealthy academic and fundraiser Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), Jamal’s father, who may or may not be funneling money to terrorists through a mysterious Cypress shipping company.

Meanwhile, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a do-good human-rights lawyer, makes contact with Karpov, who has found shelter among some Turkish émigrés. She learns from a letter he carries of his need to communicate with Hamburg-based private banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). The missive seems to prove that Karpov is entitled to an ill-gotten fortune that his evil oligarch Russian father left for him in the bank’s vault. Karpov’s family tale is a tragic one: His then 15-year-old Chechen mother, raped by the father, had died giving birth to him. But is Karpov telling the truth?

On the way to Karpov’s true identity, motives and possible backers, characters accrue and the plot thickens. But director Anton Corbijn elegantly orchestrates all the input right up to the final frames, although the ending does require a bit more concentration.

Both Hoffman and Corbijn (The American and the acclaimed Control) are key components to the film’s power. Hoffman, playing a German, convincingly delivers a German-inflected English accent. Considering his tragic death, his character may strike many as disturbingly close to home.

Corbijn shows his considerable music-video chops with nonstop twists, story-propelling action and gorgeous visuals that turn Hamburg—captured in rich autumnal tones by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme—into a sparkling and haunting supporting character.

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