One of the summer's little movie treats is “A Most Wanted Man,” made by the Dutch-born filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who emerged from the music-video world to make the Joy Division biopic “Control” and the downbeat George Clooney project “The American.” Following is the review that I wrote of “A Most Wanted Man” for Spokane Public Radio:
It’s never pleasant to memorialize someone, but the task is made even more difficult when that person was a public figure, had won an immense amount of acclaim and, for reasons involving addictive behavior, ended up dying too young. A two-fold temptation always exists: one involves inflating the impact of the person’s passing – the word “tragedy,” for example, is used far too often; the second, which applies especially to artists, involves exaggerating the legacy that gets left behind.
This is how I have chosen to begin my review of “A Most Wanted Man,” Anton Corbijn’s intense, riveting and darkly ominous adaptation of John Le Carré’s 2008 spy novel. In true Le Carré fashion, Corbijn’s film tells a story of people, some weak, others merely well-intentioned, navigating the dangerous waters of espionage in which lurk the single-minded sharks of political ideology. And standing at the film’s heart is the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A leading man in a character actor’s body, Hoffman – who died in February of a drug overdose at age 46 – starred in more than 50 films. Moving effortlessly between independent and mainstream projects, he worked for a number of big-name directors, from the Coen Brothers to Paul Thomas Anderson. He earned four Oscar nominations and won for playing the title role in Bennett Miller’s 2005 film “Capote.”
But – and here is where I have to be careful – I would argue that Hoffman pulled off perhaps his greatest performance in Corbijn’s version of “A Most Wanted Man.” I say version because by condensing Le Carré’s 322-page novel into a 122-minute film, Corbijn’s screenwriter – Andrew Bovell – made some necessary changes to Le Carré’s story, the main one involving Hoffman.
Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the head of a German counter-espionage group that targets terrorists, such as those who had plotted the events of 9/11 while – to the German government’s embarrassment – living in Hamburg. A blend of rogue agent and instinctual predator, Gunther suspects an international philanthropist of helping fund Islamist terrorism. When a hapless Chechen immigrant stumbles into Hamburg, Gunther sees a chance to set a trap. The Chechen, a Hamburg banker and an altruistic immigration lawyer, all become pawns in Gunther’s plan.
Unlike the book, which splits its attention more equally between the main principals, Corbijn’s film is haunted by Hoffman’s Gunther. Overweight, chain-smoking, drinking at all hours – even while on duty – Gunther is the epitome of a man driven by past failures, by the need to do what he thinks is right even when all notions of right and wrong get twisted by political expediency. He’s a man whose strength of purpose is, ironically, what makes him most vulnerable to the sharks who pose as his allies.
Powerful in every way, and boasting the talents of actors such as Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe, “A Man Most Wanted” is fueled by Hoffman’s unique ability to explore the deepest recesses of his character’s soul. That it was his final performance makes his achievement – and I don’t think I’m overstating this, his very legacy – even more worthy of praise.