Given the enormous budgets and associated stratospheric expectations, it appears more than likely that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, parts 1 and 2, will serve as the more bombastic episodes in the staggered swan song of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those concluding chapters of the ridiculously good Hunger Games series will undoubtedly reap huge rewards at the box office, assuring the actor of an appropriately large canvas on which to be memorialised.
Whatever the scale of those adventures, it is unlikely that such blockbuster fare will provide for as fascinating a display of Hoffman’s onscreen omnipotence as the rumpled, cigarette-caressing Teutonic spymaster Günther Bachmann. A secondary presence in John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, Bachmann’s importance is enhanced and brought to life here by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn along with Hoffman. The latter's death in February robbed cinema of, arguably, its greatest contemporary talent.
As befits the famous writer’s back catalogue, A Most Wanted Man, is a masterfully constructed Euro thriller, dripping with the cold paranoia of a post-9/11 reality. That seminal event is the prism through which all actions are judged and in Hamburg — its oily waters provide the backdrop to an ominous opening title card — these considerations are especially relevant. For it was in Germany’s great port city that the landscape-altering attacks of 2001 were conceived, then planned; their genesis was hidden, goes the implication, by a proud tradition of multiculturalism.
German intelligence is determined to cripple the ‘offcuts of a nation called Islam’ in any way that it can. Its point man in this endeavour is Hoffman’s rotund Bachmann, the hard-drinking patriarch of a small unit operating on the peripheries of its nation’s laws by sniffing out extremist cells, recruiting assets and generally engaging in the kind of high-stakes espionage with which Le Carré is so familiar.
A wonderfully complex character, Bachmann is every inch the jaded spook. His modus operandi relies on intuition and an innate understanding of his foes, yet regardless of his ethereal tendencies he is a true believer, the tip of the spear in a war against horrifying, demonstrably destructive ideologies.
Hoffman is simply fascinating then, deftly imbuing Bachmann’s shuffling frame with a wheezing, open-collared inelegance and a cutting turn of phrase. Early on, a petty securicrat pompously advises him that terrorists ‘hide among us.’ ‘Do they?’ say Bachmann, wryly, disgust long ago replaced by wearied acceptance of the minimal appreciation for his craft. Stalking from scene to scene, like sage warrior, Bachmann mistrusts the American partners and his own government’s hulking bureaucracy, wary of its inability to get out of his way, to let him do his job.
His intricate plans revolve around a callow Chechen immigrant, Issa Karpov (a superb Grigoriy Dobrygin), and the fortune Karpov’s father laundered through the bank of Willem Dafoe’s quietly amoral financier, Tommy Brue, whose obsession with lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) forms the thrust of the literary source material. Employing all of the means at his disposal, Bachmann intends to use the money to hook, and turn, ostensibly moderate Muslim academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).
That is the basic thrust of Corbijn’s picture but, in truth, the complexities of international diplomacy and simple human nature jostle to spoil Bachmann’s design. Even the subject of the title is unclear. Is he the man in question, with his deceptively sharp mind and the information others desire? Perhaps our focus should be on the devout Issa, haunted by a monstrous past and unaware of his place in the tangled web. Abdullah seems the most obvious candidate: urbane, safe, undeniably suspicious.
Whoever sits at the centre of its myriad strands, A Most Wanted Man is a surprisingly straightforward thriller, lacking the coolly vacillating narrative conjured by Le Carré in the excellent, restrained Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Corbijn’s confident direction allows a dense story to breath and as the extent of Bachmann’s closely guarded scheme shifts into view, he keeps a tight reign on the action. The tension is not especially palpable by the conclusion but there is sincerity beneath that icy tone, its refined vibe never compromised by anything approaching hysteria.
This is a step up for Corbijn whose last cinematic offering, The American, was little more than a vacuous star vehicle for a game George Clooney. It ably captured the subtle beauty of an Italian winter, of course, and, as expected, the visual work here is outstanding. His Hamburg is a blue-collar cosmopolis, at once brutal and exquisite, the default location for a gritty tale of such unashamedly European stylings. The sturdiness of the storytelling, however, is a pleasant surprise considering the director — a telling waypoint in Corbijn’s progression from artist to auteur.
Indeed, as the crucial final piece slots into place, that which could have been played for the pleasures of the multiplex stays rooted in a world forged not by Bachmann’s thoughtful precision but by the political pragmatism of unyielding CIA officer Martha Sullivan (an incredibly menacing Robin Wright). Her ever-smiling exterior is clearly an act, a tool in a game only she fully comprehends.
If this is her game, then Hoffman is surely the star player and there exists an element of genuine tragedy in the fact that we will never again see him in a film so suited to his singular brilliance.
An edited version of this article was first published here.