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Most Wanted Man, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Most excellent."
5 stars

I must admit to bring a little surprised that John le Carré is still with us and writing contemporary works; I had sort of imagined he faded away with the end of the Cold War. This, it turns out, is not the case; age may have slowed him down some but his stories of quiet men doing ethically questionable things in the names of their countries continue to come and intrigue a patient audience. This impressive adaptation of a more recent work is low-key, but nevertheless a fascinating story of espionage's unusual ethics.

The scene is Hamburg, where Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads a small, very secret operation trying to discover terrorist plots and money in the port city. His main target is Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a moderate philanthropist of Arab descent who tends to have a little money disappear on the way to the good works, at least until Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) shows up. A Chechen immigrant with jihadist ties, Karpov enlists Annabel Richter (Rachel MacAdams), a young lawyer specializing in refugee cases, to serve as a go-between with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose bank is holding a great deal of money deposited by Karpov's Russian father. Gunther sees a plan and a pattern here, but he'll need some help from American observer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) to gain some time, as the regular police would like to take the bird in the hand.

There are all manner of spy stories, from the James Bond and Tom Clancy stories which focus on taking out the enemy with varying degrees of stealth to the almost amoral ones where the conflict is so abstracted that those involved simply treat it as a game. This one sounds very much like the latter; while it reminds the audience right off the bat that the 9/11 attacks were largely planned in and staged from Hamburg, it doesn't offer up any sort of secret plot of its own, whether terrorist or governmental, and of the two or three scenes that have what one would usually describe as "action" in a movie of this type, only one comes away feeling like that sort of moment. There's still excitement, though; director Anton Corbijn stages characters tailing each other as well as anybody you'll see, while he and screenwriter Andrew Novell make le Carré's story built around possible dirty money worth listening to closely.

What makes A Most Wanted Man interesting is that it is actually very much concerned with morality and how Gunther and others like him compartmentalize it. There's a nifty sequence in the middle of the film where he excuses himself from a discussion with Martha about realpolitik and sometimes needing to let enemy agents be to go slug a man who was beating his girlfriend - and then, in the next, he and his team are doing something rather illegal to a German citizen. It's not the first indication that this isn't just a story of gray game-players operating outside the law and society, but it is an eye-opening contrast that reveals just how much every character is trying to do not just the effective thing, but the right one, even as they try to exploit that impulse in others.

It gives Philip Seymour Hoffman a heck of a good final starring role (there are two Hunger Games sequels still unreleased, but this is the last film to be his rather than just made better by his contribution). Gunther is not something the audience has never seen - workaholic spies who substitute alcohol for a personal life are a very familiar type, and if you squint you can almost see Hoffman becoming Brian Cox here. He plays it well, though, highlighting the character's confrontational and isolated manner to start and carefully reveals what may be the character's better lights in ways that intrigue by making the audience consider whether he's working someone or for real. Like many, I'm going to miss this guy.

His is far from the only noteworthy performance. Grigoriy Dobrygin makes Issa intriguing; he carries the weight of his character's history while still having an air of menace that makes seeing him as a potential terrorist not hard at all. His scenes opposite Rachel McAdams in the latter half of the movie are especially good; he's clearly starting to fall for her while she's become more complicated than the cheerily idealistic young woman of the start. Then there's Willem Dafoe as a flustered banker, revealing a believable and occasionally kind of funny flustered everyman behind the intimidating facade. Robin Wright isn't the only noteworthy actor in a smaller part, either - Gunther's team includes German stars Daniel Bruhl and Nina Hoss (if you like her in this, check out Barbara).

That's enough talent on-screen in a kind of low-key film that a viewer might not quite realize what an excellent film they're seeing until an ending that is, unusually, just as clear as it is a kick in the pants. "A Most Wanted Man" will likely be remembered in large part for being Hoffman's swan song, but it's a terrific spy film regardless of circumstances.

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originally posted: 08/21/14 10:33:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  25-Jul-2014 (R)
  DVD: 04-Nov-2014


  DVD: 04-Nov-2014

Directed by
  Anton Corbijn

Written by
  Andrew Bovell

  Philip Seymour Hoffman
  Rachel McAdams
  Willem Dafoe
  Robin Wright

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