Thank heaven. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final moments in “A Most Wanted Man” are devastating. His whole performance is one of accelerating brilliance, but the final five minutes of it are shattering.
And that’s the way it should be.
There is – somewhat remarkably and quite thankfully – more Hoffman to come on screens large and small: a couple of “Hunger Games” installments and, maybe somehow, at least part of a Showtime series called “Happyish” in which he was to star before the world was horrified and inconsolable after a drug overdose killed him at the age of 46. They’re all listed as “postproduction” on the IMDb website, an indication of so much surviving Hoffman footage to work with that maybe it’s even enough.
But “A Most Wanted Man” is a superb film that – contrary to many of our beliefs – very much stars Hoffman in a role that is a tragic illustration of how very much drugs and addiction took from this world so suddenly. Hoffman was, as we long knew, a great actor and also a unique one. And this may be the last time a starring role in a film may prove it.
You could almost say that the whole intelligence world of John le Carré’s novels – of which this is such a brilliant adaptation – was waiting for Hoffman, an overweight, hopelessly rumpled chain-smoker who wheezes on screen with almost every intake of breath and often waddles when he walks like a man whose frame is carrying just a bit too much weight.
The weight on Günther Bachmann isn’t just the weight of his own body. Some of it is the weight of the world. Bachmann is a German intelligence expert in counterterrorism focused on Hamburg for a very simple reason – that is where al-Qaida terrorists conceived of the plot that became the events of 9/11.
Bachmann’s German counterintelligence unit is small and nimble and a law unto itself in the world of international intelligence that causes nothing but trouble with every oversized and cumbersome agency he has to deal with, whether it’s the Hamburg police, German government security or the American CIA. They all have to deal with their oversize selves, too, which is the hardest thing of all and conjures up the endlessly quotable wisdom of psychologist Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.”
That’s the kind of thinking that Bachmann has to maneuver around when he discovers that a self-tortured Russian jihadist from Chechnya (Grigoriy Dobrygin) has come to Hamburg to collect the massive fortune his father left for him in a Hamburg bank. Will he use it to fund fundamentalist Islamic terrorism as the bin Laden family’s son, Osama, used family money to fund al-Qaida?
Or will the money go to another whom Bachmann is watching ever-so-carefully, a doctor renowned for contributing to humanitarian Islamic charities who also seems to find secret ways to finance terrorism, too?
It all becomes quite complex and exquisitely subtle and very much part of the twilight moral universe of le Carré’s novels in which, to use the modern cliché, there are a lot of moving parts and the most black-and-white political allegiances always seem to find themselves submerged in a soulless and malevolent gray.
Rachel McAdams plays an idealistic lawyer whose humanitarian organization helps those, like the Chechen, who find themselves stateless in other cultures altogether. Robin Wright – with her hair cut short and dyed black (or possibly in a black wig) – plays the CIA agent who wants to help Bachmann but who Bachmann knows will always have an agenda of her own.
Willem Dafoe plays the German banker who can make the inherited funds available to the proper recipients if all the legal i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. His role, too, is both powerful and self-serving in ways both subtle and, quite often, unreadable.
Bachmann is a man of heroic patience and subtlety. He wants, in classic investigative style, to follow the money up the ladder to whoever it might be that is able to fund terrorist activities on a world-rocking scale. As Hoffman plays Bachmann, no man could possibly be a less likely Atlas to be ferrying the globe around on his shoulders. He is an organized and purposeful man who knows how chaotic and aimless he seems – a man so good at what he does and so aware of that fact that he can’t imagine a single reason why he should keep that knowledge from others.
Hoffman’s performance, like the film, escalates becoming eventually a well-constructed mansion of details and subtleties. The evident pleasure of his co-workers in working with him couldn’t be more obvious.
The director of the film is Anton Corbijn, who directed George Clooney very well in “The American” but does a spectacularly fine job here of concealing how much power his story is accumulating until he’s ready to make it clear.
And then, look, if you will, at those final devastating minutes and the film’s final image, so perfectly oblique and symbolic of the story’s most important person.
Who happens to be played by Hoffman, whose loss was one of the most tragic Hollywood stories that anyone knows at the moment.
A MOST WANTED MAN
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Grigoriy Dobrygin
Director: Anton Corbijn
Running time: 121 minutes
Rating: R for language
The Lowdown: Adaptation of John le Carré novel about a rumpled but brilliant specialist in counterterrorism in German intelligence who wants to go as far as he can up the ladder of Islamic terrorism’s financiers.