When Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February, he had several films half-completed or in the can. Their quality, as it is for any actor, even the Oscar-winning elite, is always going to be variable. A star performer can only dictate so much of the show, though this adaptation of a lesser 2008 John le Carré novel will, I think, be remembered as the best among Hoffman’s posthumous releases. Directed by the very deliberate Dutch photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn (Control, The American), A Most Wanted Man is a fatigued and belated picture—and I mean that as praise. It’s post-spy movie, post-Cold War, post-9/11. Hoffman plays a rumpled Hamburg cop, Bachmann, with failures in his past, who’s charged with the dirty work of counter-terrorism. There are no press conferences or posh U.N. cocktail parties for this schlub, who’s like a German variant on Lieutenant Frank Columbo: disrespected by his bosses, underestimated by his quarry, beloved by his team, but a wry, sad, solitary figure who expects the worst outcome from any investigation. Bachmann is a pessimist and alcoholic who listens to Beethoven late at night on his stereo, alone.
Crawling out of the Elbe, like a rat, is a Russian-Chechen Muslim we’ll come to know as Karpov (Grigory Dobrygin), though he has other names. Bachmann and his squad (including Continental all-stars Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) follow Karpov intently without arresting him, hoping he’ll lead to bigger fish. His bosses are dubious; a separate, rival German intelligence agency interferes; and he’s even got to negotiate with the CIA—represented in butch slacks and blonde buzz-cut by Robin Wright—to allow Karpov room to roam. (Here Rachel McAdams shows up as a naïve, sympathetic human-rights lawyer—riding a bike, of course.) Will Karpov plant a bomb in the rush-hour subway or lead Bachmann to an important al-Qaida funding link? Related within a few days’ time and surveillance, that’s the essential plot.
Gadgets don’t agree with the genius of le Carré. If intelligence can simply be gathered by satellite, computer, and wi-fi, what’s the point of the face-to-face deceptions and codes of spycraft? The recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a much better movie as it evoked the old, analog Cold War; unreliable technology meant that human relationships, and betrayals, were paramount. Hoffman would’ve been a better fit in that bygone world of smoky negotiation and curdled compromise. In The New York Times last week, le Carré said as much, calling him “the only American actor I knew who could play my character George Smiley.”
Carve those words in granite. I’ll most remember Hoffman from this movie in a brief scene, set on a ferry, where Bachmann tries to keep a nervous young Muslim informant in the fold. The kid is scared, understandably, and Bachmann agrees with his every complaint. But then Hoffman, the actor, leans in like a lead shield. He absorbs all the tsuris of the younger performer (Mehdi Dehbi) like a sin-eater, hugs him, and keeps the invaluable source intact. It’s all in a day’s work for Bachmann, but for Hoffman, too, there must’ve been costs. Opens Fri., July 25 at Seven Gables, Oak Tree, and Pacific Place. Rated R. 121 minutes.