There are a few things that make A Most Wanted Man difficult to watch. To begin, the film is a showcase for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Gunter Bachmann, a German intelligence agent heading a small counterterrorism operation out of Hamburg.
Bachmann is an especially Hoffmanian character: shrewd, and unflappable under his crumpled menswear and sweat-matted coiffure. Beneath its densely layered espionage narrative, A Most Wanted Man feels like a ghost story. Hoffman’s slumped figure skates across the screen, an eerie image unmoored from its real-world referent. Like a book we want to keep reading, despite the compression of pages telling us the end is near, it’s hard not to want A Most Wanted Man to go on forever, if only to spend time in the company of Hoffman – one of the great actors of his, or any, generation.
This melancholy tempers the more severe bitterness of A Most Wanted Man. The film is based – like, it seems, a good 85 per cent of espionage thrillers – on a novel by John le Carré, whose books have been reliable font for big-screen adaptation, from 1963’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to the more recent Gary Oldman showpiece, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. By and large, le Carré’s books are about hard men of consummate character doing the diligent, unheroic and often entirely pointless work of covert politics.
Le Carré is the anti-Ian Fleming, and his heroes (if it even makes sense to call them that) stand in stark contrast to suave superspies of the 007 variety. Men like Bachmann shoulder the tough drudgery of espionage – observing, waiting, delaying, waiting some more – without the gaudy rewards of fast cars, dangerous women or smart-alecky cocktail orders. Where Bond parkour-jumps through a construction site or skis down the Alps, Bachmann sits and watches, his focus lubed by cheap scotch and his honest conviction that he’s making the world a safer place.
The perp here is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen exile who seeks out a sympathetic human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) to help secure an inheritance totalling tens of millions of euros. Given his ties to militant jihadist cells, German intelligence bureaucrats with itchy trigger-fingers are eager to arrest Karpov, while Bachmann insists on following the money to a bigger fish, wealthy Muslim academic Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) whose philanthropic donations are believed to be a cover for endowments to Islamic terrorists. With some leverage from a CIA agent (Robin Wright), Bachmann’s team is given 72 hours to snare Karpov and Abdullah, with the forced co-operation of McAdams’s bleeding heart and the head of the bank responsible for transferring Karpov’s hefty bequest (Willem Dafoe).
There runs through le Carré’s work a strain of gallant defeatism, an idea that morality exists only to be compromised. A Most Wanted Man is no exception, and the weighty gloom that drapes the proceedings, lensed in dusky browns and consuming blacks by director Anton Corbijn and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, underscores Bachmann’s stern belief that “this is the real world”: ugly, gruelling, forever negotiated.
Le Carré sells exhaustion as enlightenment, a noble resignation to the bitter realities of existence. So while it’s totally unsurprising, A Most Wanted Man’s final twist of the foreign policy knife feels predicated by this pragmatic pessimism, by the weary wisdom that in espionage, as in life, it’s hard to win.