It’s not much of a surprise at this point that whenever a new John le Carré movie adaptation comes out, there’s a good chance it’s going to be a very exciting spy thriller with an unusual and interesting premise, with the guarantee that it has more depth to it than your average American action oriented thrillers do. The pace that these le Carré adaptations come out seems to be increasing in the recent years, which to me personally is good news. It was only three years between this and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, six years before that it was The Constant Gardener and now we’re already getting a new one later this year in the form of Our Kind of Traitor, starring Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård and Damian Lewis. It’s a great time being a fan of espionage movies.
A Most Wanted Man happened to be the last movie by Philip Seymour Hoffman that was released while Hoffman was still alive, and in that regard he passed away with one heck of a parting gift. Hoffman is always good, but he does an impeccable job in this with his role as Günther Bachmann, the worn out leader of the espionage task force with the focus on Muslim extremist threats inside Germany. From the very first scene onwards Hoffman is able to paint a very complex and subtle picture of his character, without ever actually revealing that much of anything personal about himself. He’s a bit worn down, clearly burned by his past and disillusioned by the work that he knows is important but which bureaucracy only keeps making harder to do. Hoffman in essence builds him to be a complex, hard to read but immensely likable character and it’s pure joy to witness his acting within such a well developed world .
Grigoriy Dobrygin as an actor is a completely new face to me, and though he wasn’t particularly charismatic, he does a very good and powerful but at the same time reserved performance as Issa, the tortured Chechen illegal who has sneaked into German in search of a better life. Issa’s character in the story is actually pretty interesting in hindsight. The way the movie begins, you are lead to believe he’s going to be the focus and main subject of central story, and to be fair, for most of the movie he is, but in the end his character is actually revealed to be more of a plot device to tell a completely another story where Issa’s role is to be an unwitting pawn in a larger game of chess within the world of espionage. This might annoy you at first, but the more you think about it, it’s actually quite brilliant way to depict the nature of the spy game and how devious it is. The story is never what it initially seems, and even when you think you are in the know something happens that takes you completely by surprise and you are always just a pawn in someone else’s game. It actually makes me retroactively appreciate the movie more.
That said, let’s get to the cons. While I appreciated the fact it was very matter of fact and grounded approach to espionage, the pacing gets a bit too lax in the second half of the movie once we’re strictly focusing on the build up for the money transfer entrapment and the focus on Issa is relaxed in favor of focusing on the mechanics of getting the plan to trap the big fish approved and under way. It doesn’t exactly get boring or distracting, but it does slow down to such a degree that it is a bit noticeable that the plot isn’t progressing as fast as they could anymore. The story is also in a strange way both annoyingly simple as the main dish but brilliant in its subtext. There’s complexity, but in the large picture it’s not that noticeable.
In the end A Most Wanted Man ends being a bit mediocre as a story, but very polished and well acted espionage procedural. You have several layers of betrayal, scheming, bureaucracy and red tape, subtle power struggles, etc. working in tandem that creates a very true and wholesome looking picture of the grey, unseen world of spies. It doesn’t ever try to glorify or damn anything and instead tries to go about in a very clinical way when depicting the game and the people who operate in it. And that is exactly why the ending is so damn frustrating and good. You feel just as betrayed, enraged and apathetic as Günther does. It’s so down to Earth, surprising and aggravating, just like real life. And there’s nothing you can do but suck it up, because that’s life.