Being a spy is nothing like we imagine in the movies. There are no gorgeous women throwing themselves at you. You will not be kidnapped and taken to some supervillain lair and told “No, I expect you to die!” There are very few car chases. For the people generally in the direct employ of organizations like the CIA, spying is, essentially, an office job. You get people to feed you information, turn people into informants, get others to turn on their neighbors and friends and fee info back to you. It’s sort of like a managerial job with the possible threat of actual death.
Real spy jobs are fairly dull. Author John Le Carre’s novels have always been the kind of polar opposite of Ian Fleming’s. Le Carre deals with the gray areas that come with spying. Are the people that you go after really bad? Do you convince the young man to risk his life to turn in his father? These themes are dealt with in the latest film to be made from one of his novels A Most Wanted Man.
When the Cold War ended, Le Carre was forced to find other enemies for his fictional spies to go after. A Most Wanted Man takes place in Hamburg, Germany, where a young man enters the country illegally. He does not go unnoticed. Since 9/11, Hamburg, a major port city, has been in high alert for terrorists and Islamic groups are under intense scrutiny. The young man who entered the country is half Chechen on his mother’s side and Russian on his father’s. He also has a note that says he is allowed to access a fortune in Euros that his father has left behind.
Meanwhile, a chief spy named Gunther Bachmann is trying to connect the dots between a wealthy and popular local Muslim man who has been preaching tolerance of Islamic cultures. This man has been publicly speaking out against terrorism, but the spies in Hamburg believe he might be funneling money to terrorist cells using false-front companies. Gunther thinks that the young man with access to a lot of money might be used to lure the bigger fish out into the open.
It is a plot that, at best, is murky and muddy. It moves slowly. Lots of people spend a lot of time talking. There are no car chases. There is not a single gunshot fired in the entire film. These people say things loaded with hidden meaning and double-talk and people are making deals and side deals constantly. They play with people like others play with chess pieces.
A the center of A Most Wanted Man is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther. Gunther is a broken man who has been in the spy game much too long. A few years before the movie started his contacts and network in Beruit was exposed (it is mentioned later the CIA might have been responsible for that) and many of his spies were killed. Now he is in Hamburg. He is overweight, his gut perpetually hanging over his belt. His clothes are wrinkled. Even his car somehow looks wrinkled. He smokes constantly and is the kind of guy who brings a flask to a morning coffee meeting and dumps booze into his java. He sees this young man, and nailing the bigger fish, as some kind of redemption for himself, for losing his network in Beruit, and to do something good.
This movie is not fast paced. It takes its time. There is danger on the edges of the screen, but rarely front and center. The good guys and bad guys are never entirely clear. Even among Le Carre fans, this is not considered one of his better novels.
What makes A Most Wanted Man worth seeing is Hoffman. He is outstanding as Gunther. His voice is gruff and rougher than normal. He completely inhabits this role, becoming a rather unlikely hero. The fact that we lost this actor earlier this year is made all the more devastating with how good he is in this role. Hoffman holds the entire movie together, elevating an average spy flick into something more, something important.
A Most Wanted Man is not a great movie, but it is one that should be seen for anyone who appreciates Philip Seymour Hoffman. He died at the height of his abilities and that is a tragedy, but fortunately we have movies like this one to remind us how great he was.