Front Row at the Movies
“A Most Wanted Man”
Is Philip Seymour Hoffman
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
David Cornwell was a minor functionary for British intelligence back in the ‘50s and ’60s, and he learned his tradecraft (that’s spy techniques to the uninitiated) so well that he began writing complex, dark, and highly accurate espionage novels under the pseudonym of John Le Carré. His books were required reading for the KGB.
His 26 titles have included “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,’ “The Constant Gardner,” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” At least nine have been made into movies.
His 2008 spy novel “A Most Wanted Man” has been translated into film by Dutch director Anton Corbijn. A photographer turned filmmaker, Corbijn has tackled murky spy stories before, most notably “The American” starring George Clooney.
“A Most Wanted Man” is playing at the Tropic Cinema.
This time around the LeCarré story is set in Hamburg, the German port city where Mohammed Atta and his cronies planned 9/11. Amid this stewpot of paranoia, we have a secret anti-terrorism team headed by a disheveled, hard-drinking German spymaster named Günter Bachmann (portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bachmann is trying to develop some intelligence assets, but his patience and strategic approach is in competition with his counterpart Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a hardliner who prefers to arrest ‘em rather than recruit ‘em.
They clash over a 26-year-old half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who has ties with Islamic terror cells and a hotshot human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams).
Bachmann lays a careful trap with the help of a dodgy banker (Willem Dafoe), a CIA agent (Robin Wright), and the lawyer, a complex scheme that has to be pulled off in 72 hours.
They all come together in the murky morality territory so familiar to LeCarré readers.
As the CIA agent explains, they’re just trying “to make the world a safer place.”
Good luck with that.
Here you have a coterie of American actors affecting foreign accents. Chief among them is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. While he serves as star of this dark and dyspeptic thriller, he was known as “probably the most in-demand character actor of his generation.”
Once director Joel Schumacher said of him, "The bad news is that Philip won't be a $25-million star. The good news is that he'll work for the rest of his life." He did, dying in February 2014 from “acute mixed drug intoxication, including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine.”
A friend of mine dated him in the ‘80s when he was first starting out as a stage actor. But she broke up with him because of the heavy cocaine addiction he’d developed while studying acting at NYU.
He later cleaned up his act, had a 14-year relationship with costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, but fell off the wagon during the wrap party for his film “The Master.”
“A Most Wanted Man” is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film. Its title suggests a testimonial for the star. But it’s not the monument his career deserves.