A Most Wanted Man is an adaption of the novel of the same name by British espionage writer John le Carré who, just like Ian Fleming, worked for the British intelligence services and has written novels based on his experience. The film stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Günther Bachmann, an old-fashioned and gruff agent who runs a secret intelligence unit in the German city of Hamburg, which has been on high alert ever since the Sept. 11 attacks were planned there. His team’s current assignment is the investigation of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a part Russian part Chechen recent arrival to Hamburg. Issa, with the help of a passionate human rights activist named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), is trying to claim his rightful inheritance from a German bank. However, Günther believes that he is connected to Islamist terrorist cells, and enacts a plan to use him to catch a more valued target, respected philanthropist and suspected Al-Qaeda sympathizer Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).
What’s interesting about this movie is that it is a spy movie with no gunfights, no car chases, and no explosions. But that by no means make it less interesting than a “typical” espionage movie. In fact, it makes it more compelling, because it makes you realize that this is the sort of stuff that real intelligence agencies probably do. The spies’ methods may be mundane, but they are no less disturbing for that. Instead of chasing after the bad guys, guns in hand, they put hidden cameras in their houses and watch their every move. Instead of messily hacking into their computer files, they blackmail the people closest to them and make them spill their secrets. Instead of shooting someone, they silently pull up, put a bag over their head, and drive away. It’s often chilling, and with the recent revelations about our country’s espionage activities, it will strike a deep chord with many people.
And this is fascinating. If you had told me about this film before I had seen it, it might have sounded boring. And yet, this at times excruciatingly slow-burn of a thriller kept me glued to my seat for every moment. It makes you wait for every bit release of the enormous amount of tension that builds up as Günther slowly and steadily zeroes in on his targets, waiting for the right moment to strike. There is almost no violence, and the acting is similarly subdued. And speaking of acting, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant, as always. The German accent though is slightly strange-sounding, but not enough to break your suspension of disbelief. Rachel McAdams, while not as good as Hoffman (and even if she was, it would be film critic heretic to say so), is still very good. Robin Wright also makes an appearance as a meddling CIA official. The lesser known foreign actors really make the film though, as they portray, again, realistic characters, not caricatures or simple foreign bad guys. Further, the film is not at all afraid to tackle tough issues, and dos not at all disguise the fact that much of what Günther does is illegal, and immoral, and quite likely necessary.
While I do not see this kind of realism becoming the standard for espionage films, it is refreshing to see that they not only exist, but that they can be just as thrilling, gripping, and suspenseful as a blow-em-up. While bombs and bloody shoot-outs are fun, they need some kind of substance in order to really make a connection. A Most Wanted Man is a testament to how high-quality acting, writing, and realism can do to make an exciting yet mellow film. The only bad thing about it is that, due to the tragic, untimely death of the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, we won’t ever get to see anymore of Günther Bachmann (and the fake German accents, just a tiny bit.)