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A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last star turn

Jul. 30, 2014
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A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman was among the great actors of his generation, and while he played many parts, he was especially at home when suffering no fools. In A Most Wanted Man, his final starring role before his death earlier this year, Hoffman lives inside the skin of a German intelligence officer named Günther who bristles at the lack of intelligence among his superiors. And don’t get him started on the CIA, which he regards with wary contempt.

The setting is present-day Hamburg and the problem to be solved concerns militant jihadism. A suspicious Chechen refugee, Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), turns up at the train station and disappears into the crowded port city. Günther’s superiors want Issa found and arrested immediately, but the shrewd spymaster has a better idea. He wants to keep an eye on Issa, who has access to a hidden bank account, and allow the Chechen to unwittingly unmask the well-connected, respectable-looking network that finances Islamist terrorism.

As with most film adaptations of John le Carré, and many of le Carré’s stories, the vagaries of the plot in all its inevitable twists and surprises is less important than the memorable characters and the precarious world of betrayal that they inhabit. Director Anton Corbijn (George Clooney’s The American) translates the moral twilight of espionage—with its secrets, lies and duplicity—into a visual twilight of dim harbor bars fitfully lit by jukebox lights and claustrophobic, curtained interiors. The pale North Sea sky encloses Hamburg with a murky screen against the sun. Among the supporting characters dwelling in the shadows is Willem Dafoe as the worldly banker who asks few questions about the money passing through his hands.

Hoffman savors his role as a bulky, chain-smoking operative who spikes his coffee with a swig of brandy and speaks in the low rasp of a Teutonic Don Corleone. Haggard but alert, always taking stock behind the disarming cover of his slept-in appearance, Günther audits Islamic events, encourages a network of guilty-feeling informants, deploys the tools of a surveillance society and is willing to play rough when necessary. While played in a lower key, the German spymaster is reminiscent of an earlier Hoffman role, the disgruntled CIA agent Gust from Charlie Wilson’s War, in his grasp of the big picture and contempt for the uninformed and unimaginative. Hoffman’s empathy for the irascible will be missed.


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