Philip Seymour Hoffman classes up an otherwise dull and contrived spy drama.
Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
A stone-cold spy-thriller about 9/11, A Most Wanted Man is about as drab as it is inessential. An opening title card – its words floating above a dirty shoreside – informs us that the terrorists who orchestrated the September 11 attacks did so from the port city of Hamburg, Germany. Out of the ocean crawls Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Muslim half-Russian, half-Chechen refugee. He quickly lands on the radar of German intelligence officer Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Released into theaters five months after his death, Hoffman’s solid performance is just a cog in A Most Wanted Man’s pulpy machinery. By setting itself in the then-present of the early 2010s, the film “dramatizes” what “good” counter-terrorism work actually looks like – I put those two words in quotes because things aren’t particularly dramatic, nor can these operatives be considered particularly good. Through its characters’ effort to stop the next 9/11, the film implies that it reveals how catastrophic tragedies like 9/11 are allowed to happen.
Regular readers of this column may realize that this isn’t even Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first movie about 9/11. There’s of course The 25th Hour, and then in Charlie Wilson’s War, director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin almost had the tenacity to argue that the United States was responsible for creating the conditions that led to the attacks. Hoffman again played the smartest guy in the room, the one arguing that intelligence and foreign policy decisions of the time were creating terrorists, not stopping them – just as he does in A Most Wanted Man.
His Günther Bachmann is a prickly spy-master, the leader of a top secret German counter-terrorism unit comprised entirely of great actors: Christian Petzold regular Nina Hoss plays second-in-command Irna, while Daniel Bruhl and Vicky Krieps are stuck as underused background players. Seeing Hoffman work with these superb international performers is exciting, and by putting on a thick German accent he effectively passes as another EU native.
This was hardly the first time Hoffman significantly altered his voice for a role, but he’s able to sell this cadence by giving Günther the same, aggressively normal mannerisms he’d lend to a part in his native tongue. From a physical perspective, Hoffman never approaches James Bond – make that Mission: Impossible – territory: aside from one scene in which he has to intimidate, he moves through the frame without asserting anything out of the ordinary. Spy-craft is underplayed at every turn: intelligence gathering comes down to taking a trip to a dingy coffee shop at the right time. Hoffman’s performance neatly fits into the low-key atmosphere.
This doesn’t just help him land the accent – the choice informs Hoffman’s character, too. Bachmann is also intentionally trying to come off average, so that he’ll be underestimated and can better manipulate any situation. Each move Bachmann makes is in service of a greater endgame, his every action as pre-meditated as the notes in Hoffman’s performance. This would be interesting if said endgame was interesting; this parallel would be compelling if the movie had any deeper interest in Bachmann’s psyche.
No, we’re here for the convoluted plot, as Karpov befriends an immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) to retrieve his late father’s blood money from a banker (Willem Dafoe) and enters the orbit of a prominent Muslim philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi). “What do you think the long term objective would be? What are we trying to achieve?” asks a hovering CIA Agent (Robin Wright). “To make the world a safer place. Isn’t that enough?” Bachmann coyly replies.
A Most Wanted Man is about as drab as it is inessential.
On the one hand, A Most Wanted Man understands that actual counter-terrorism work is borderline boring (the climax boils down to whether or not a man in a bank will sign a piece of paper) and essentially endless. It’s true, these are not problems that can be solved by shoving someone into the back of a van or blowing people to smithereens. That said, is it too much to wish this thing was a little bit more exciting?
Worse still, the endlessness of terrorism gets traced back to a genuinely Islamophobic root. We’re told (both by Günther and the text as a whole) that acts of terrorism are an inevitability of Islam. The Muslim philanthropist I mentioned earlier is quickly revealed to be funding violent jihadists around the world. In fact, all the Muslim characters are inextricably linked to terror plots – such racism makes it difficult to take the film’s propositions about the failures of the intelligence community seriously.
Adapted from a John le Carre novel by writer Andrew Bovell and director Anton Corbjin, there’s a multitude of missed opportunities here: the Islamophobia of the German government and CIA could’ve been incorporated into the critique of these institutions. Instead, it’s blankly accepted. So while the film purports to elevate the spy-movie into a relevant and cynical warning, it comes off closer to a television pilot for a series nobody needs. Hoffman gives an effective performance, but by focusing on its flawed ideas rather than the psyches of its subjects, A Most Wanted Man will most certainly leave you wanting more.