MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: A Most Wanted Man

A MOST WANTED MAN (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.-United Kingdom-Germany, 2014

It’s nice to see a big-budget A movie that exercises your intellect as well as your tolerance for violence. In A Most Wanted Man—a smart, sophisticated new spy thriller based on the 2008 novel by John le Carre (“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,“ “Tinker, Tailor. Soldier, Spy“)—the late, uncommonly brilliant actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays an uncommonly well-observed character: a German anti-terrorist agent named Gunther Bachmann. Bachmann is a cynic, a spoiled idealist, an addict who chain smokes cigarettes, downs whiskey after whiskey and speaks in a rumbling monotone glib growl laced with world-weary innuendo. For his sins, he’s been assigned to the anti-terrorist office in Hamburg, a snake pit of  spying and double-dealing in which murder runs rampant and catastrophes like the 9/11 World Trade Center attack are planned.

You could not possibly see this part performed better than Hoffman does here. With that uncanny expertise he had for believing his roles, and thoroughly conveying that belief, this genius of a stage and film player convinces us that he’s German, that he’s a anti-terrorist agent, and that he’s a good man trapped in a bad job. It’s a role (and an accent) that suggests a mix of great popular literary and cinematic traditions: with hints of Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and James Mason (at his seediest) and shots of other le Carre movie anti-anti-heroes, played by actors like Richard Burton, Mason and Alec Guinness.

Thanks to Hoffman — and to le Carre, director Anton Corbijn, scenarist Andrew Bovell, and a really fine crew and supporting cast — the movie sweeps us almost effortlessly into that gray sinister British,/European/Russian world of international espionage in which le Carre (the nom de plume of ex British intelligence operative David Cornwell) has specialized since the ‘60s. This is the dark fictive domain not only of le Carre but of  earlier master book or movie spy-tale-spinners like Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. And, as you watch the lead actor peel aside all the layers of this sad but relentless man he‘s playing –an often disgusted  professional who has seen the worst and expects no better than some kind of merciless compromise — he manages to tilt the entire world of le Carre’s Hamburg in his darkish direction, to immerse us in its deadly, ruthless  complexities. He makes the man Bachmann and the fictional world around him, come burningly, woundingly, terrifyingly  alive

Thanks to le Carre a.k.a. Cornwell (who is also this movie’s executive producer and whose sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell are two of its producers), Hoffman brings to life this unfazed anti-terrorist agent, bedeviled by more brutal and less humane colleagues. He‘s a wily operative who’ trying to set a trap for a well-respected Muslim philanthropist (Homayoun Ershati as Dr. Abdullah) whom Bachmann suspects is  secretly funneling cash, hidden among his charitable gifts, to terrorist groups, and who is about to get a huge donation from a half-Russian, half Chechin refugee in Hamburg (Grigoriy Dobrygyn as Issa Karpov). Karpov is a wounded innocent on the run — a devout Muslim escapee from Russian prison and torture, who wants to  make up for the evil his military father committed by giving all his inheritance to good people and organizations for good works.

Trying to help Issa — who is the Most Wanted Man of the title — is a dedicated  knockout leftist Hamburg lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Holding the estate, warily, is  sage, tightly buttoned Hamburg banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). And working with, or against, or at cross-purposes with  Bachmann — helping or hindering him, or maybe both (or maybe neither) — are a friendly, almost maternal looking CIA agent named Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) and a vicious little spy twerp named Dieter Mohr, whom Rainer  Beck turns into the very personification of the kind of self-righteous, nasty, officious little prick who blights most governments, most corporations and not a few smart movies..  Bachmann’s allies and co-workers are his plucky associates Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl) and Irna Frey (Nina Foss), who may also be his lover, or his squeeze, or whatever they  call it in Hamburg.

Now, Hamburg ….As much a character here as any of the actors, as much (almost) as Hoffman’ Bachmann, it’s a city that sets up echoes and shadows and reverberations in our gut and  heads, like the twisted, shadow-drenched  Vienna of Greene‘s  and Carol Reed’s The Third Man, the rotting, furtive  Berlin of Fritz Lang’s M, and the drizzly Paris of Jules Dassin’s Rififi — a labyrinth of  betrayals, with skies that seem always overcast and people who seem always glum or tense or, deadly serious — just like the skies, the office buildings, the streets ready to close in on you, the footsteps echoing behind you, the watchful eyes picking you out of a crowed, the operatives pulling a black hood over your head.  It’s al beautifully realized and visualized and dramatized, not just by the Cornwells, but by director Anton Corbijn (a real visual stylist who made Control, and The American with George Clooney), and by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, and production designer Sebastian Krawinkel.

Like Humphrey Bogart, Jason Robards, Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman (or, in a way, Meryl Streep), Hoffman is a character actor who became a star lead, yet remained equally adept at either level. His German inflections roll with an acid melancholy around his throat, often seeming more real than the genuine article, and his eyes keep shifting over that cute, crooked half-smile of his, as if to follow a vanishing prey that he won’t let elude him.

He’s great, of course.  Hoffman was always great, and here he’s once again so good that all the rest of the cast —  including Dafoe, McAdams, Wright, Ershati, Foss and Dobrygyn — seems to be riding along with him, scaling the heights that he’s opened up.

Sad to say, it’s one of his last performances. Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at 46 last February 2, and though he was an extremely prolific actor, there are only a few projects left in the can, only a few more chances to see and celebrate the sad, happy, glorious genius of an actor we’ve grown use to, depended on  — one of the best of his profession, one of the best there ever was, then, always.

This may be the best of those performances — I doubt that the rest of his Plutarch in Hunger Games, will match it — but then everything he did was worth watching. There should be more movies like A Most Wanted Man. There should be more actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. But let’s thank Heaven  or whoever or whatever parcels out the dramatis personae on destiny’s playlist, that we got  the several dozen or so he gave us. It’s all still there, on celluloid, shining: that crooked little half-smile that suggested a guy about to snatch some candy, or take advantage on  an opponent, that mellifluous voice that could be Irish music or East Coast hip or Boston jive or whatever he wanted it to be — and here so completely convinces us, that we’ll probably always feel that the residents of Hamburg speak like this, or should speak like this, if they don‘t.

It was a sad day for the movies — and for theatre — when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died.

But it’s a happy day or shining hour that  he left something behind. A Most Wanted Man is the sort of highly,  realistic, thickly populated, well-thought-out film drama that we look for in the movies and mostly don’t get. Maybe it would have been better as a TV miniseries, with more time to flesh it out. But its easy to see that this is a film made by people who respect the material, respect the audience, and want to do well by both.

Now, I could fudge the matter, and say that here is a movie that “ordinary” audiences may not get, that maybe it’s too complex and twisty for them to handle. (I liked it better when I saw it a second time myself.) But what’ wrong with making movies for extraordinary audiences? For smart audiences? For audiences that know history and literature and the world, and can’t be easily fooled or quickly satisfied? Movies that can’t be outguessed and predicted, and that can offer up new surprises and revelations the more we see them — extraordinary movies, geared for adults and intended and built to yield up all their treasures, slowly, not all a once. A movie made for adults, with adults, by adults. What’s wrong with that?

That’s why Hoffman was such a reliable guy. He picked good projects and helped realize them as well as they could be. He could take a little, tiny scene  — for example, the way, as the beaming rich kid snob Freddie, that he grins and grins and torments Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley  (“Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!”) trying to get him to unmask himself  in The Talented Mr. Ripley — and make it so memorable yet so endlessly renewable that you never tired of it, never get tired of him. Now there’s Bachmann, this plump, dour, chain-smoking man who tries to live and thrive in a world of Byzantine betrayal, and finds that…that…Well, you’ll see. And if you’re an adult, you won’t demand more car chases, riots, gun battles, more on-screen torture. The movie, and Hoffman, and artists like Hoffman,  have something more to give: a voice, a face, a  grin. The little things, the words, the phrases,  that make up all our lives. Tommy. Tommy. Tommy.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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