To make the world a safer place. That’s it. That’s what motivates the words and actions of virtually every character in A Most Wanted Man, a tense, well-drawn, post-Sept. 11 espionage caper.
Anton Corbijn (The American) directs, but Wanted Man will probably be best known for having one of the last film appearances by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Despite adopting an awkward German accent, the late actor excels in his role. And although his persuasive performance as a German intelligence official should be recognized, it should not overshadow the overall fine film.
Wanted Man has many of the qualities found in the works of its source novelist, John Le Carre. The film exudes the same chilly atmospherics as Le Carre’s master Cold War novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The uniformly humorless, taciturn characters all believe they are making the world a safer place. Subsequently, their dedication and focus make them fascinating.
Hoffman plays Hamburg intelligence chief Gunther Bachmann. When a Chechen, a possible terrorist, sneaks into town, Bachmann faces off with his superiors about whether to allow the suspect freedom while being followed, or having the possible danger immediately deported. Bachmann wins a 72-hour window, setting in motion his team that forces grudging cooperation from a banker (Willem Dafoe) and the Chechen’s human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams).
From there, director Corbijn, from Andrew Bovell’s script, cynically manipulates his characters through the escalating drama that snags viewers, forcing them to become engaged in the drama’s outcome. The delicious irony comes in having all the players believing they are the exception about being manipulated, when, in reality, they are all at the end of someone’s puppet strings.
Wanted Man confronts a tricky language problem in having a predominantly American cast play Germans speaking English in stilted (and not entirely believable) accents.
Initially moving beyond the language awkwardness proves a challenge, but once the intricate plot kicks in and it grows increasingly difficult to tell the good guys from the bad, the language becomes an afterthought — something the movie never does.
BOO ALLEN is an award-winning film critic who has worked for the Denton Record-Chronicle for more than 20 years. He lives in Dallas.
A Most Wanted Man
Rated R, 121 minutes.