Movie Review

by Amanda Nelligan

Maybe he’s the Son of God, come to save us.  Save me.” says Gunter Bachmann, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last completed role in A MOST WANTED MAN.  Redemption is a key theme in this subtle, intricate, and at times distancing film.  The lead performance of the late Hoffman unquestionably anchors this film and gives it a depth it might not have accomplished on its own.  It’s impossible to separate Bachmann’s desperate, lumbering, yet skilled attempts to find peace and meaning in his life with what we know about the Hoffman’s own personal struggles.  This script slowly winds its way toward a seemingly inevitable and dark end – and knowing this is Hoffman’s last role makes watching this riveting performance all the more poignant.

Like most Le Carre works, the plot is intricate and the themes dark and probing. Hoffman’s  Bachmann is the head of a clandestine anti-terror branch of German intelligence based in Hamburg, Germany, the city that once played host to many of the 9/11 terrorists.  We learn that his current position is a demotion – Bachmann used to run a Berlin unit that was blown and his agents were killed.  As a result, he’s deeply protective but deliberately removed, mostly through cigarettes and scotch, from his current team.  In addition to protecting Germany – and, by default, the world – he is also actively defending his own turf.  The potential invaders include his own superiors in German Intelligence as well as his CIA counterpart, Martha Sullivan, played by a charming yet ruthless Robin Wright.

The titular character is Issa Karpov, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin, a Chechen refugee and suspected Islamic terrorist, who literally washes up on shore.  Bachmann’s people spot Karpov on a security camera and quickly and efficiently track him down to where he is staying with a Muslim family.  The spy-craft employed to find Karpov is impressive and fun to watch.  Bachmann’s young and eager team includes a computer wiz Max played by Daniel Bruhl of RUSH and THE FIFTH ESTATE.

They discover that Karpov was tortured in a Russian prison, escaped, and is in Hamburg to collect money left to him by his father.  Karpov meets a human rights lawyer, Annabel Richter, played by a Rachel McAdams, who acts as a conduit between Karpov and Brue, the head of the bank where Karpov’s inheritance is being held, played by a reptilian Willem Dafoe.  Karpov’s father – a Russian mobster who raped Karpov’s mother – and Brue’s father had an alliance, and Brue’s bank still holds millions in ill-gotten funds.

The Americans and German intelligence would be happy to rush in and seize Karpov with no questions asked, but Bachmann decides Karpov’s money is the perfect bait to catch an even bigger fish – Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) a Muslim academic and charity fund-raiser whom Bachmann believes is also literally shipping money to terrorist Islamic organizations.  As Bachmann explains to Martha Sullivan, “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda.  It takes a barracuda to catch a shark.”

Bachmann is a true believer – as he states several times he’s trying to make the world a better place.  But the question of the movie quickly becomes at what cost.  Bachmann soon surmises that Karpov is likely innocent – he confessed to terrorist activities only after being tortured.  Karpov and, by extension, Annabel, become Bachmann’s personal cause, perhaps his last chance for redemption.  But to save them he is willing to use them to the point of nearly breaking them.  After Bachmann coerces Annabel into manipulating Karpov into his plan, she tells him, devoid of all spirit, “Your goat is tethered.”

This is a story about using people.  As Bachmann says “We find them. We become their friends, brothers, fathers.”  The script is subtle and it’s not until the end that the true power and nuance of what has come before is revealed.  For example, in one scene Bachmann and his second in command, the lovely Irna Frey, played by Nina Hoss, are tailing Annabel, and to deflect attention, pretend to be a kissing couple (a tactic his team uses several times in the film.)  We the audience know that Irna is actually in love with Bachmann, but he is oblivious – their kiss is just a means to an end.  And that is ultimately Bachmann’s downfall.  When the ends end up out of your control – all you are left with are the means.  “Every good man has a little bit of bad, doesn’t he?” muses one of the characters.  And sometimes the goodness is just not enough.

A Most Wanted Man opens July 25th, 2014.


Directed by Anton Corbijn; written by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carré; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Claire Simpson; production design by Sebastian Krawinkel; costumes by Nicole Fischnaller; produced by Stephen Cornwell, Gail Egan, Malte Grunert, Simon Cornwell and Andrea Calderwood; released by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute.

WITH: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Günther Bachmann), Rachel McAdams (Annabel Richter), Willem Dafoe (Tommy Brue), Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan), Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov), Nina Hoss (Irna Frey), Daniel Brühl (Maximilian), Franz Hartwig (Karl) and Homayoun Ershadi (Dr. Faisal Abdullah).

Photo credits:  Kerry Brown (Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

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