The surveillance state has a human face. In A Most Wanted Man’s telling of it, it is the gruff, unshaven, alcohol-bloated, nicotine-addled visage of Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a spy who looks like he has a way to travel before he can come in from the cold. As the lead field agent of a specialized German intelligence unit based in Hamburg, Gunther is responsible for monitoring terrorists in the city where the September 11th attacks were planned. Carrying the weight of the New World Order on one’s shoulders is just as hard as it sounds and, as might be expected, Gunther is just the sort of bureaucrat who takes two teaspoons of coffee in his morning whiskey.
But, for all that, A Most Wanted Man (based on a novel by John le Carre) is not a conventional spy thriller. Gunther knows how to throw a punch in a bar fight (and does), though it’s not exactly Jason Bourne’s krav maga. Gunther and his associates chase suspects down city streets and alleyways, but never over rooftops. They do not even appear to carry guns that must discharge by the third chapter. The conflict in A Most Wanted Man is tangible, but it is as much internal as it is mano-a-mano.
Unlike spy movies drawn from the Mission Impossible vein, there is no signature MacGuffin, no ticking time bomb. A specific threat never materializes, although Gunther makes clear that what happens in Hamburg affects other fronts of the war on terror. In this case, the unspecific threat is embodied by a young Chechen/Russian named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a former insurgent in Hamburg who needs asylum and several million dollars in a hidden account kept by his dead father, a former Russian general.
In the post-9/11 world, Issa’s arrival in Hamburg is enough to prompt an investigation, and this investigation kicks off when a member of Gunther’s team captures an image of Issa’s face on a train station security camera. Of course, when Gunther’s team investigates, they do not typically confront. His crew of cellphone and image analysts look more like the guest list of a Star Wars convention than a SWAT team, and their tactics are to entrap their targets by recruiting everyone around them: the banker controlling the funds (Willem Dafoe); the rebel’s immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams); the son (Mehdi Dehbi) of the terrorist money manager (Homayoun Ershadi).
All of this is conducted while trying to keep at bay the Hamburg police and American envoys seeking to score an easy victory by parading shackled terrorists in front of a television camera. Giving voice to this perspective are Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a German government official who mostly exists to complain about not being updated on current investigations and Martha Sullivan, a US State Department official played by Robin Wright in a role that blends the same Machiavellianism and humanity that will be familiar to anyone who has binge-watched House of Cards. Such are the stock characters that we have come to expect from John le Carre’s narratives, and the same can be said of their antagonists. While making the film’s terrorist financiers ambivalent about their actions might be a more realistic treatment of such people, director Anton Corbijn strives so hard to make Issa and his lawyer, Annabel Ritcher, sympathetic that they come off as hollow and uninteresting. They do not possess much identity beyond the le Carrian category of homines decentes.
But, for the vast majority of the film, the energy is located in the center, focused on Gunther and his attempt to navigate the moral ambiguity that lies between making the world a safer place and doing no harm. When Ritcher asks him what he will do to her client and he answers “Nothing bad” it might not matter whether the audience believes it, because Gunther most certainly does. But, even as he strives to do “nothing bad” to the majority of targets, with their images pinned up on his office wall, he still lives in a climate of difficult choices. Even as he works harder than anyone to ensure that no one is hurt, he seems the most conflicted about what he does for a living.
Perhaps this is because, unlike the jingoistic government officials and terrorist financiers, his main tactic is manipulation. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, a boy who Gunther has recruited as a spy expresses the desire to desist from his duties. After all, he is just “a student”. Instead of threats or bribes as might be expected, Gunther reassures him that he is needed. He is the operations “eyes and ears”.
Director Anton Corbijn (The American) uses strong photography to portray the isolation and loneliness of characters only capable of fleeting personal interactions. Nonetheless, the movie will probably be remembered as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last leading performance. Hopefully, it will not be remembered by merit of its chronological position alone, because Hoffman’s performance is a reminder of what a great talent the world lost with his death. From the voice that sounds worn because of its constant use to the exhausted expression he can barely hide while trying to convince his superiors to give him more slack, Hoffman flawlessly embodies a man who may be uncorrupted by the world that he inhabits but who is being corroded by it nonetheless. If nothing else, A Most Wanted Man is a reminder that in the unpredictable world of terrorism and espionage, hands may become soiled by more things than blood.