‘A Most Wanted Man’ Review
Nobody shoots people through windows quite like Dutch photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn. After coming out of the gate with the splendid Ian Curtis biopic ‘Control’ and the gorgeous but muted ‘The American,’ his adaptation of John Le Carre’s recent novel, ‘A Most Wanted Man,’ suffers from his intentional coldness and precision. Recollecting on the film reminds me that it is an interesting yarn, but while watching it I was unable to shake that it was so … freaking … slow.
Doing the film no favors is the fact that another stately, patient Le Carre adaptation, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’ is equally lovely to look at (man, both films really nail the exquisite beauty of conference room desks) but holds your interest in a far more winning manner. ‘Wanted Man’ has a big finish, too, but the payoff doesn’t make up for the painfully tortoise-like manner of the film as a whole.
We’re in Hamburg, Germany, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (chameleon-like and a champion, as always) leads a small and somewhat secret anti-terrorism task force. Ever since Mohamed Atta devised the 9/11 highjacking from Hamburg, various agencies from across the War on Terror’s coalition have had their eyes on Hamburg. But that doesn’t mean these groups play nice together. Hoffman’s Gunther perpetually causes static with higher-ups in Berlin and his liaison from America (played by an unrecognizably stern Robin Wright.)
Gunther has his eyes on the long game. He’s tracking a man named Abdullah, a pro-West Muslim philanthropist who transfers money to humanitarian groups in the Islamic world. Gunther suspects that some of this dough goes missing and looks to terrorist organizations. He’s got his eye specifically on Abdullah, hoping he’ll lead to figures on the other end of those checks and that the arrival of a new player on the scene — a Russian prisoner of Chechen origin with a big inheritance in a German bank — will help lead him up the totem pole.
The suits, naturally, want to bag the Chechen immediately — maybe just for show, or maybe just because they think it is smart. The bulk of this picture is Gunther navigating the interoffice politics to delay any arrests and watching, always watching, for someone to make a move.
In time, Gunther’s group needs to take initiative, so they involve the Chechen’s banker (Willem Dafoe) and his left-liberal lawyer (Rachel McAdams) in a large-scale sting. Whether these new players are acting out of their own interests or the good of humanity is a little vague. What’s striking is that our ultimate quarry isn’t even in the picture. We’re after the Chechen to get to Abdullah so we can squeeze Abdullah for what he knows. You gotta start somewhere, I suppose.
Reflecting on the plot, strangely, makes me like the movie more than I remember. That’s probably due to Le Carre’s juicy geo-political book than Corbijn’s film, which is loaded with dead air and plenty of bad accents. (A scene between Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams had me thinking, “Just stop already and talk normal; we’d all be better off!)
But ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is one of those movies where the final 15 minutes are so powerful you want to forgive the long slog it took getting there. If one wants to make rationalizations, one can explain away the bulk of the picture by saying, “That’s the relentless and mundane nature of true espionage.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t buy it. ‘The Lives of Others’ addresses this as well as the aforementioned ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’ and you wouldn’t call either of those films boring. This one, alas, fits that description. But it looks really nice, and Hoffman, as always, inhabits his character at a molecular level. As such, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is a frustrating film, but one that I still recommend.
‘A Most Wanted Man’ premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.