The new film based on John le Carré’s novel A Most Wanted Man features the last significant Philip Seymour Hoffman performance (there are still two Hunger Games movies in the pipeline), and part of me wishes I could report that he was at low ebb, at the end of his talent as well as his tether: It would make his loss easier to bear from an artistic (if not a human) standpoint. But what’s on display here is a great actor at his absolute peak — damn it all.
Hoffman plays German spymaster Gunther Bachmann — a post–Cold War, post–9/11 George Smiley figure who understands espionage more deeply than his superiors or the hovering CIA agents. The setting is Hamburg, where an escaped Turkish prisoner named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) — the devout Muslim son of a corrupt Russian general and a Chechen woman — arrives to secure a vast inheritance from a German bank for purposes unknown. Most everyone is in a hurry to whisk Issa off to some black site for interrogation, but Bachmann, a self-described “cave-dweller” who smokes and drinks heavily and spends hours staring into monitors, has a deeper grasp of human complexity. He’s not sure Issa is a bad guy, and he suspects there are shades of gray in the probable recipient of Issa’s money, the moderate Muslim academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who might be giving a small part of what he collects for charity to terrorist organizations. Unlike his counterparts, Bachmann isn’t a hasty blunderer. He understands — like Smiley — that the better agent plays the long game.
This is not a shapely piece of storytelling. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of free-range terrorism, le Carré had to relearn the art of puzzle-making, and once screenwriter Andrew Bovell disassembles the pieces to suit the vocabulary of film, he doesn’t quite know where to put them. Drawn into Issa’s orbit are a Turkish mother and son, a human-rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a German banker (Willem Dafoe) struggling with the corrupt legacy of his eminent father, and a CIA string-puller (Robin Wright) whose sympathies are unsettlingly veiled. A Most Wanted Man doesn’t snap into focus until the last 15 of its 121 minutes. But until then, director Anton Corbijn serves up plenty of good, foggy, rainy ambiguity. Who knows what’s going on in the jumbled mass of tankers and canals in this massive port city?
In the end, A Most Wanted Man is all Hoffman. As the actor grew heavier and more sodden, he became more intensely inward. You feel no gap between Hoffman and his role. He is a big man, half in shadow, his bloated body an irrelevant appendage, seeming to draw on his brain as he draws on his cigarettes, musing over every word as he sniffs his whisky before tasting it. Many actors attain emotional authenticity, but Hoffman’s work is intellectually true. There is great sadness, but also glimmers of childlike hope that his thoughts will somehow cut through the entrenched stupidity and violence and make the world a better place. That is, at any rate, how Hoffman left it.
*This article appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.