Anton Corbijn’s third film, based on John le Carre’s novel, sees the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther Bachmann; the leader of a Hamburg based anti-terrorist squad. After the 9/11 attacks were planned in the city, they have a remit to operate outside of German law so as to prevent a similar atrocity from occurring again. In the midst of an on-going investigation, a Chechnyan Jihadist, Issa Karpov, arrives to complicate matters.
While it would be inaccurate to call this a thrilling film (save for the tense finale sequence, which manages to hinge on something normally banal), it’s an involving and fascinating look into counter-terrorism, very far removed from the glamorous trappings of a Bond film. It’s thoroughly grounded in a dingy, everyday reality, with Hamburg’s industrial heritage never far from the screen. Despite this, due to former photographer Corbijn (and cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme), there are some striking and beautifully arranged images, such as the opening shot of a blood red riverbank.
It’s initially a shock to see Hoffman on screen for the first time since his passing, and with a German accent, but it’s only a matter of minutes before he becomes his character. This is not a showy performance, but it’s utterly convincing. Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe also adopt a Germanic lilt, disguising their natural accents less well but not distractingly so. Both deliver strong supporting performances. McAdams plays an idealistic human rights lawyer (bagsie writing the first ever jaded and cynical human rights lawyer script), Dafoe a jaded banker.
With the Russians pushing Bachmann to let them deal with Karpov, he has to persuade the American ambassador to Berlin (Robin Wright) to keep them on the leash while his team investigates. The unpleasant nature of their job, and the burdens it places on them, are touched on in the movie, which has an intriguingly awkward moral maze. Yes, these people do unpleasant things, and yes, they have a bitterly pragmatic outlook on life, but they’re the best of a bad bunch. In order to do the right thing, they have to do some wrong ones. It’s a different, harsher morality that McAdams comes up against, and yet, relative to the story, they’re positioned as the heroes.
It helps that Bachmann is amusing grumpy, sardonic and wry, a sense of humour shared by his team. It’s almost as if trying to stop major terrorist incidents would make you morbid. Certainly there’s a lot of alcohol and smoking, lending Bachmann an ever-present wheeze. To continue the anti-Bond nature of the film, one chase sequence features an out-of-shape man running through a nightclub after two young people, the ostensible heroes put black hoods placed over peoples’ heads without warning in broad daylight, and when Bachmann gets off a helicopter it’s in Berlin for a meeting.
While gadgets and espionage devices are featured, the feeling of this film is more of a procedural; the separate strands coming together to a conclusion that feels more like a hustle than a spy thriller. Indeed, for anyone who thought American Hustle was all style over substance, A Most Wanted Man has more ambiguity and weight to it, even if it does lack the sheen.
Nonetheless, while Corbijn’s film has a lot going for it, it never soars. It’s interesting, certainly, and considers the domestic ramifications of terrorism. For a two-hour film it rarely drags, it’s just that it feels more cerebral than emotionally engaging. For example, despite the tense ending’s initial impact, the film continues briefly in a way that feels superfluous, and goes back to a quiet and contemplative mood after the intense emotions of the previous scene.
It’s unlikely to get the heart racing for the most part, then, but it is at least a film that fully engages the brain, demanding attention and thought to get the most from it. Eat some fish beforehand, prepare to be depressed, and maybe debate ethics in some sort of intellectual’s coffee parlour afterwards. That sort of thing.
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