4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.25.14
John Le Carré continues to write gripping espionage thrillers, and he has the added bonus of seeing many of them translated intelligently to the big screen.
A Most Wanted Man is no exception.
This compelling adaptation is helmed by Dutch director Anton Corbijn, who first came to our attention back in 2010 with his disappointing handling of The American, an adaptation of Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman. In fairness, that film’s failure had more to do with its dull, dreary script and a miscast George Clooney’s soulless performance, along with the fact that it was difficult to sympathize with a career assassin possessing few redeeming qualities.
Corbijn obviously learned a lot from that experience, because A Most Wanted Man boasts everything that his previous thriller lacked. For starters, le Carré’s riveting plot is ripped from contemporary headlines and fueled by the moral dilemma that troubles all progressive Western countries: Can we justify subverting established law in the pursuit of terrorists who refuse to “play fair”?
Le Carré’s densely complex novel has been compressed ingeniously by scripter Andrew Bovell, who deftly stripped away an entire set of supporting players (the British) in order to amplify the German setting and characters, primarily the veteran black-ops surveillance agent who has become the heart of this narrative.
That would be Gunther Bachmann, played to ferocious perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman: the last film he completed before his tragic and untimely death.
To say that Hoffman’s performance is mesmerizing would be gross understatement; the man owns the screen, and this film. The forever disheveled Bachmann is a study in contrasts: a beady-eyed, chain-smoking, whisky-drinking fox who flouts established authority and couldn’t care less about currying favor, and yet possesses investigative skills that cannot be dismissed, even by colleagues and superiors who loathe him.
Hoffman has for quite some time transcended the artifice of performance; he’s one of very few film actors who doesn’t merely “play” a part, but instead fully inhabits the role of moment. That’s particularly true here, where we quickly cease to see Hoffman and instead watch, fascinated, as Gunther Bachmann embraces the sacred trust placed in his hands: to make the world a safer place.
That’s a key line: Watch Hoffman’s body language, and his expression, when he is given the opportunity to toss it back at the individual who first says it to him. Rarely will you see such an impeccably crafted blend of amusement, irony and barely controlled fury.