By MEAGHAN CLOHESSY
It is nearly impossible to review Anton Corbijin’s A Most Wanted Man without the reminder of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. The final two-hour performance (not counting his supporting role in the upcoming Hunger Games film) casts an eerie mystery as to his last lines and his legacy. For other films, that mystery may have been enough to draw audiences away from the film. Thankfully, Corbijin’s film encompasses a commanding final role within a poignant tale examining foreign relations in our post-9/11 world. Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann, a German secret service member running an underground mission for capturing potential terrorists. When a Chechen prisoner (Grigoriy Dobrygin) escapes into Hamburg after being tortured in a Russian prison, Gunther sees an opportunity to use him to capture a well-respect Muslim advocate Dr. Faysil Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), suspected of funding terrorist organizations. To achieve this end, Bachmann manufactures a network of informants, including a human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a banker who inherited a dark past (Willem Dafoe). With gripping tension and phenomenal performances from the entire cast, A Most Wanted Man analyzes a vulnerable moment of global history through the tragic road to redemption.
The film captivates audiences through the complexity of Bachmann’s network, starting with the title of the film. A direct interpretation of the title makes the ‘most wanted man’ Issa Karpov, the Chechen prisoner, the pawn for exposing terrorism in Hamburg. Yet the phrase refers to several of the characters, including Bachmann, whose mission of redemption hangs on the mercy of influential government officials, as well as Dr. Abdullah whose charisma and intelligence represents the fear toward the post-9/11 Muslim community.
Each character fights a battle between how others perceive them and how they wish to be perceived. No one understands this battle better than Bachmann, who not only experiences the battle firsthand but also can exploit the battle within others. A prime example of this exploitation occurs when Bachmann convinces Dr. Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Dhebi) to betray his father by spying on him. A tight shot frames Bachmann and Jamal against the cloudy waters of the river they travel, creating a literal grey area where both the boundaries of morality and motivation become blurred. Bachmann establishes intimacy by speaking to Jamal as a surrogate father; he knows the right words and the correct buttons to push that ultimately cause Jamal to continue spying on his father. Despite the clear manipulation, Bachmann displays regret in pushing Jamal into this situation. The combination of screenwriter Andrew Bovell’s dialogue and Hoffman’s stunning acting showcases Bachmann’s painful sympathy toward an impossible choice. He understands that every character in the film, including himself, are pawns in larger political struggles hopelessly out of individual control.
Fear of terrorism was not isolated to the United States. By 2005, both Madrid and London experienced brutal attacks that caused the death of hundreds. While Corbijin establishes that fear through the grey tones and isolated character shots within the film, he also wants audiences to understand the political context guiding the film’s events. Corbijin achieves political context through the steady progression of the film. At two hours, the film is not long, but Corbijin takes a page from Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and stretches the exposition without stilting the pace. Corbijin adds enough action to build the film’s incredible tension, but he wants audiences to focus on the global impact of 9/11 and the rise of terrorism. A faster-paced film would have skipped over Sharpov symbolizing Putin’s targeting of the Chechen population following the wars in Chechnya and the Beslan School Massacre in 2004.
Slower pacing allows discussions between Gunther and Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American observer, which demonstrate the different foreign policy goals of Germany versus the United States. The subtle xenophobia theme through the Turkish immigrants that temporarily shelter Karpov accentuates the social realities behind the fear of the ethnic Other. Even for those who don’t know the history, Corbijin provides enough context for us to become rapt with the film and its characters, making the ending all the more frustratingly heartbreaking. After Bachmann walks off-screen one final time, it is chilling for both Hoffman’s acting legacy as well as the political atmosphere forcing Bachmann’s redemption to go forever unrealized.
Even if you’re not a fan of the simmering tension and exposition surrounding the espionage thriller, this movie needs to make your summer watch list. The film provides some of the best analyses of post-9/11 foreign policy while saluting one of the most talented and versatile actors of the last 20 years in film.