Hollywood has never been more enamored with the tradecraft novels of John le Carré than they are right now, having gained in popularity in this post 9/11 society of ours. But for me, I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with his work. While the murky games of spies and dark government assets is one le Carre knows better than anybody, the realism of his writing doesn’t always make for the greatest entertainment. Every now and then you wish a car would blow up or somebody would fire a rocket launcher or something. Much like the most recent le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man is another pot boiler with a great cast and a story that emphasizes facts, figures, and mood while leaving character in the background.
Philip Seymour Hoffman brings a palpable weariness to the role of Gunther Bachmann, an espionage operative in Hamburg, a country trying to overcome its reputation as a hot bed of terrorist activity. Gunther is part of an organization so secret, so deep in the weeds nobody knows who they report to. They operate on their own, preventing any security threats in a way they see fit. Like many of le Carre’s most popular protagonists, Gunther is a shrewd, calculating man who is smarter and tougher than his physical appearance would suggest. He’s a man called on to make the hard decisions because he always does.
When a battered and starving half-Chechyan, half-Russian man emerges out of nowhere seeking political asylum, it catches the attention of not only Gunther’s agency, but the CIA (represented by Robin Wright) and other departments in Germany. Gunther’s investigation into whether this man is truly who he says, or perhaps a terrorist in disguise, is undermined at every turn by those who claim to be on his side. The ways of spies are often like the mafia; it’s your friend with the biggest smile who sticks in the knife. The situation becomes cloudier when a local banker and civil rights advocate (Rachel McAdams) gets involved, along with a shady money man (Willem Dafoe) who is hired to help the refugee gain access to a sizable inheritance.
The second international thriller by Anton Corbijn (he directed George Clooney in The American), the film gets off to a slow start and never gains any momentum. Not that a le Carre story ever aims for big sizzle, the lack of energy is especially burdensome since there is so little interest in developing any of these characters. By contrast, an excellent le Carre adaptation like The Constant Gardener has a central figure with a personal stake in finding a hidden truth. It’s no less analytical than A Most Wanted Man or ‘Tinker Tailor’, but there’s an attempt to tell a story, not just go over procedures. And it’s a shame because Hoffman really is great as Gunther, a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The entire veteran cast, and yes that includes McAdams wielding a convincing German accent, fit into le Carre’s world perfectly. Ultimately, A Most Wanted Man is too stiff and calculating to appeal to anybody but the most die-hard fan of the genre.