This elegant, sparse, and scrupulously acted but dramatically stunted adaptation of a John le Carre spy novel is like Anton Corbijn’s last film, The American: tasteful in a Europhilic way and not quite human. Although set right in the middle of the post-9/11, post-Cold War chaos that supposedly put an end to the old ways of sleuthing, the film has us harkening back to spy business essentials. These operatives certainly make good use of bleeding-edge gadgetry; after all, one of the great draws of those old spy stories was their showing off of then-new technology, catalog-like. But the fixation is really on those classic skills of patience and mousetrap-springing that the modern espionage thriller has essentially jettisoned like Jason Bourne leaping out a window. It would seem gauche if one of these guys even pulled out a gun. That careful sense of professionals going about their work with grim diligence is some of the best of what Corbijn’s film has to offer. What it doesn’t present is a pulse.
A Most Wanted Man is about a small, off-the-books German counter-terrorist unit in Hamburg which unexpectedly hits the big time. Led by Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman), they’re charged with ensuring the city’s large immigrant Muslim population doesn’t throw off any more suicide bombers; text on the screen reminds viewers some of the 9/11 hijackers came from a Hamburg cell. They get wind of a new refugee in town, Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who might be able to help them take down Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a purportedly moderate Muslim leader they’ve been tracking. Issa is a spiritually shattered part-Chechen traumatized into near-silence after being tortured by the Russians, but somehow he has a connection to wealthy Hamburg banker-playboy Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe). A poorly developed subplot follows rich-girl human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams) helping Issa with his asylum request and being turned into an asset by Gunther while she’s simultaneously falling in love with her client.
The mission is a long, slow burn, riddled with rivalries and competing agendas. Much like spooks used to tussle over who got dibs on the next big Warsaw Pact mole, Gunther and his sharp-eyed lieutenant Erna (the superb Nina Hoss) fight to keep monitoring Issa instead of just snatching and sending him off to the Americans. Everyone wants the feather in their cap denoting that they stopped the next 9/11. Le Carre’s writing had a Graham Greene-like distrust of American motives. So it’s no surprise that when U.S. embassy official Martha (a shark-like Robin Wright) starts popping by to ask questions and offer help with Issa, Gunther is wary at best.
Like many a battered le Carre protagonist, Gunther’s bone-bred suspicion lies not too thickly over a heroic, idealistic core. In one exchange with Martha, he plays the cynic to her wide-eyed optimist, only to later use her own answer to his question about why they bother chasing terrorists in a larger strategy meeting. “To make the world a better place,” he growls, with a wink. “Isn’t that enough?” There are a few similar moments of delicate game-play scattered pebble-like throughout the film. They almost redeem its plodding nature and silly accents. (In an unaccountably bad decision, the mostly American cast playing Germans all speak in the same stilted pseudo-Teutonic tones — McAdams’ comes and goes at will, while Hoffman’s is at least consistent but sounds more Dutch than anything — that make as much sense as the universal half-posh British accents that are de rigueur in fantasy films.)
Still, Hoffman — in the second of his posthumous roles to hit screens this year — nearly saves the whole thing. His Gunther, who appears to live on cigarettes and resentment, has a ragged glory that recalls the tattered charms of Richard Burton in Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. His interrogation of Annabel is a fantastic, delicate dance of intimidation and seduction. You wonder what Hoffman could have done in the actors’ showcase that was Tomas Alfredson’s superior modern le Carre take, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alfredson and Ritt showed how to spin tight drama out of the author’s densely woven and deliberately paced plots by digging into his characters’ motivations. Corbijn keeps his drama on the smartly photographed surface, so that when the story’s devastating twist ending reveals itself, it elicits less a gasp than a shrug.