The untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman inevitably hangs over A Most Wanted Man, one of the actor's final films and his last leading role. A remarkably perceptive and original performer, Hoffman died in February at the age of 46, with possibly decades of vibrant work ahead of him. The dense, slow-burning espionage plot of A Most Wanted Man can't really compete with Hoffman's tragic fate off-screen.
In A Most Wanted Man, based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, the hard-drinking head of a counterintelligence unit based in Hamburg. A Most Wanted Man's opening titles identify the German port as the temporary headquarters for Mohammed Atta and his fellow conspirators before Sept. 11.
The film treats the city as a lively cultural crossroads under constant surveillance. Günther's team tracks the arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen Muslim with access to a mysterious German bank account. The international intelligence community believes Issa to be an undercover terrorist. A human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) sympathizes with him as a lost, tortured soul, while Günther sees him as a means to infiltrate a possible Al Qaeda front.
Directed by Anton Corbijn, A Most Wanted Man displays strengths and limitations often found in le Carré's fiction, which has spanned from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Few writers better capture the world of espionage's unglamorous complexities and compromised bureaucracies, where expediency invariably trumps honor. Le Carré also has a tendency to keep his characters at arm's length, and the cast works to flesh out the script's underwritten relationships. Humanizing humor is in short supply, but Hoffman has a funny moment when he takes a call from "the Americans" and mock-shudders "Ooo."
Soft-spoken and melancholy, Günther could be a German equivalent to le Carré's self-effacing spymaster George Smiley — the antithesis of James Bond — played by Gary Oldman in the new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Alec Guinness for the BBC. Like those other performers before him, Hoffman can be a subtle, charismatic under-actor, and here he conveys Günther's quixotic dedication to do the right thing in the face of fatalistic expectations.
Unfortunately, the low-key, drawn-out nature of the storyline means that Hoffman spends much of the film ruminatively smoking while waiting for the latest updates. A Most Wanted Man's final half-hour builds some overdue tension as Günther attempts a complex sting operation, but it feels like an inadequate payoff, particularly given the strength of the cast (which includes Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright). As a swan song for Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man only leaves you wanting more.