For over fifty years, the works of John le Carre have been the antithesis of James Bond over-the-top spy thrillers. His novels have almost no gunplay and nary a car chase; the thrills are cerebral as you watch damaged people struggle to unlock a puzzle box and reveal the secrets inside. On the silver screen, the first adaptation of a le Carre book, 1965’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, created its own subgenre in competition with Bond – the world-weary spy. Without From the Cold, it’s unlikely there’d have been The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, or A Deadly Affair (based on another le Carre book).
Le Carre’s books have continued to be adapted over the years, with The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House, and the BBC versions of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” both starring Alec Guinness as spymaster George Smiley. With the new millennium, though, le Carre has had a bit of a renaissance on the screen. Along with the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (starring Gary Oldman and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch), you have The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardner, which won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz and was nominated for another three Oscars. The newest addition to these fine movies is A Most Wanted Man. Sadly, it marks the last major film role of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, an experience German spy who, after a debacle in Beirut, has been put in charge of a small counterterrorist unit based in Hamburg. They operate in the gray area where the police can’t go, and their focus is turning terrorist assets and compromising their funding, rather than making the headline-grabbing arrests the police seek. Their current target is Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy benefactor of Islamic charities who preaches peace and understanding, but who might be siphoning off funds for terrorists through a shadowy Cypriot shipping company.
Then Bachmann’s second-in-command, Irna (Nina Hoss), catches the trail of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim wanted by the Russians on terrorist charges. He’s slipped into Germany through the port of Hamburg, which has a history of being a porous entryway to Europe. He’s seeking out a German banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose bank was involved in questionable deposits under Tommy’s father. To help with his status in Germany, friends of Karpov put him in touch with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer working with a sanctuary group. Bachmann’s work is complicated by the police, who just want to arrest Karpov and be done with it, as well as interest from the CIA in the person of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Is Karpov a terrorist meaning to strike in Germany, or a victim of the Russian war in Chechnya, or is there perhaps a third option?
Director Anton Corbijn started with rock documentaries featuring U2, Depeche Mode and Metalica, then made the well-received Control and the George Clooney bomb, The American. He gets his mojo back with A Most Wanted Man, letting the camera become a spy itself, eavesdropping on the characters. Stephen Cornwall (le Carre’s son) is one of the film’s producers, and le Carre himself is an executive producer, ensuring a faithful adaptation of the book.
The casting is excellent, especially with McAdams and Dafoe as innocents (perhaps) caught up in the intrigue. Wright is wonderfully enigmatic, while Hoss provides excellent support as a woman who’s loyal to Bachmann but who also sees many things with greater clarity than her boss. At first Dobrygin appears to be everyone’s nightmare terrorist, but as more of his story is revealed, he wins sympathy while still retaining the edge of danger.
The movie, though, belongs to Hoffman. Bachmann is rumpled and experienced, constantly in need of a shave and a cigarette. Yet within Bachmann is honor and a bit of an idealist who has dedicated his life to serving in a shadow world for the greater good. Hoffman submerges himself in the role, using only the subtle trace of an accent in his voice and a soft, shuffling physicality. The acting world lost a one-of-a-kind talent with Hoffman’s death.
Just as it’s unusual to have a tense thriller without gunfights and adrenalin-pumping car chases, it’s also unusual to have a spy film where you care deeply about the characters. But that’s the key to the le Carre world. His heroes are tarnished every-mans who, while they’re in situations far apart from normal life, are completely relatable to for the audience. It makes for devastatingly effective story telling.