John Hanlon Reviews

Film Reviews

A Most Wanted Man

Genre: Thriller

Director: Anton Corbijn

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss

MPAA-Rating: R

Release Date: July 25th, 2014

When Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), there a U.S. terrorism agent, and talks about why she does what she does, she notes that she’s trying to “make the world a safer place. Isn’t that enough?” The idea is a simplistic one but it masks deeper questions and ideas at the heart of the debate about worldwide security. What does it mean to make the world a safer place? At what lengths should we go to accomplish that goal? Are short-term victories (over suspected terrorists and small units of terrorists) enough or is it better to accept defeats and possibly even deaths in order to undermine larger terror cells that could be responsible for massive acts of terrorism in the future?

These questions aren’t easy but they are brought to vivid and painful life in the new must-see thriller A Most Wanted Man, a movie that powerfully shows the late Philip Seymour Hoffman at the top of his game.

Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann, the blunt German leader of a national intelligence unit seeking to turn potential terrorists into spies. He sees the benefits of a long-term strategy to undermine terrorist cells through the use of undercover agents and feels betrayed by the Americans, who undermined his mission in a previous Beirut operation. Robin Wright, in one of her best performances, plays Sullivan who wants to ally herself with Bachmann in order to take down Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), an entrepreneur who is funneling “charity” money to terrorist organizations.

Much of the story focuses on Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a possible low-level terrorist that Bachmann has been investigating for some time. Added to the story are Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a left-wing lawyer seeking to protect Karpov, and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a bank manager whose ties to illegal operations are well-known in the intelligence community. Bachmann wants to use Karpov to flip Abdullah, a careful mission that needs the most delicate of touches in order to succeed.

Novelist John le Carre, whose books The Constant Gardener and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were previously adapted into features, wrote the book on which A Most Wanted Man is based. Like the similarly brooding Tinker Tailor, the mournful A Most Wanted Man won’t likely be recognized by a broad audience. The story is complicated and dark undertones show the moral complexity at stake in the field of intelligence. Movies like these see terrorism as a complicated matter and show the dueling nature of the opposing intelligence agencies trying to undermine it. The focus on explosions and big-budget fight scenes is never the focus here— as it is in more big-budget films that explore the topic (Air Force One, for one). Like Zero Dark Thirty (2012), this movie is always about the intelligence behind such attacks and the brilliant but undervalued officers who are trying to find clues, information and suspects who could lead to terrorist networks.

Hoffman delivers one of his finest performances here as a man who has seen the threats his nation faces on a daily basis and still gets out of bed— hoping against hope— that he can prevent the next 9/11. He’s worn-out, tired and oftentimes betrayed by his own allies and yet he still fights each days against terrorist cells.

A Most Wanted Man may not be for everyone but it proudly and painfully explores the fight against terrorism as a battle of intelligence and manipulation rather than one of bombs and guns. It’s a must-see.


Review by: John Hanlon