There’s no way that Philip Seymour Hoffman could have known that his final starring role would be in A Most Wanted Man, Anton Corbijn’s understated new drama about the moral vagaries of preventing terrorism. Even so, the film feels like a suitable swan song—an un-showy showcase for the late actor’s heroic lack of vanity, as well as his ability to locate glimmers of dignity in undignified men. Hoffman’s character, the very last downtrodden type he’ll ever portray, is Günther Bachmann, a disgraced German intelligence agent relocated to Hamburg after a botched assignment. (“As punishment?” someone asks him. “Depends on how you feel about Hamburg,” he replies.) Günther is a consummate professional who never seems to sleep, and whose diet consists almost entirely of cigarettes, spiked coffee, and French fries. His qualifications, however, outnumber his bad habits; he is a master of manipulation, capable of being ingratiating or intimidating as necessary, of building trust and striking fear. His one flaw—and it’s a fatal one in his line of work—is the persistent nag of a conscience.
Günther, in other words, is cut from the same cloth as George Smiley, literature’s least dashing secret agent. Both characters were created by British spy novelist John Le Carré, author of the 2008 book on which A Most Wanted Man is based. Corbijn, who made the Ian Curtis biopic Control and the George Clooney art thriller The American, expertly captures the spirit of Le Carré’s writing—a melancholy resignation about the state of the world, a vision of intelligence officers as weary loners disillusioned about the value of their work. Most of the movie takes place in mundane environments, the greasy-spoon diners and smoky dive bars of Hamburg, and the majority of its scenes are just long conversations, heavy on dry humor and cynicism. The filmmaking is as subdued as the frumpy operatives it captures; only a fevered subway pursuit qualifies as “thrilling,” at least in the conventional sense of the word.
The most wanted man of the title is not Günther, but the person of interest he’s investigating, a young Russian-Chechen immigrant who arrives in Hamburg looking for asylum—and maybe, his watchers believe, to claim his deceased father’s dirty fortune. Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), whose weary eyes and scarred torso betray a traumatic backstory, quickly catches the attention of the international intelligence community. Günther believes his mark may be innocent, and wants to use him to fry a bigger fish—a wealthy Islamic philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) he suspects of funneling funds to terrorist organizations. Before he can set this plan into motion, however, Günther has to untangle a web of competing interests; those involved in the situation include an icy CIA bigwig (Robin Wright), a shady banker (Willem Dafoe), and a bleeding-heart lawyer (Rachel McAdams, struggling a little with her German accent.)
Corbijn handles this surfeit of plot with ease, skillfully preserving the mystery of Issa’s motives and creating an atmosphere of pervasive distrust. He’s a fine match for such rigorously adult entertainment, but is the gig worth his efforts? At least as translated, A Most Wanted Man seems like lesser Le Carré. The novel was published in 2008, when outrage over America’s foreign policy had reached a fever pitch; the author, clearly in screed mode, constructs his story like a long trudge towards a single damning point. (Newsflash: The war on terror has caused some collateral damage.) The movie suffers the additional misfortune of following a more masterful Le Carré adaptation, Tomas Alfredson’s handsome take on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There are plenty of reasons to prefer Alfredson’s movie, but the plainest is the superiority of the source material—a richer tale from the writer’s back catalogue.
What resonates, in this smart but minor procedural, isn’t the harsh vision of a post-9/11 world, but the unglamorous depiction of governmental grunt work. Like Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Wanted Man understands national security as the purview of workaholics, men and women who have sacrificed personal lives for the sake of their duties. There’s something deeply sad about the relationship between Günther and his second-in-command, Irna (Nina Hoss), who share a bantering rapport familiar enough to be called romantic. When they feign a kiss mid-film, pretending to neck to avoid detection, the squandered emotion becomes palpable: Personal satisfaction—happiness, even—is an impossibility for these committed intelligencers. Hoffman, slumping with defeat when not using his weight as a weapon, locates the tragedy of his disheartened hero. He also gets to let loose one last blue streak, bellowing with impotent frustration as only he could. The actor’s subtlety will be missed, but so will his way with an expletive.