Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Second To Last Role May Be His Best
When Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year he was universally mourned for one of the more eclectic careers in recent memory. A character actor’s physique with a leading man’s presence, Hoffman’s cinematic resume is one many actors would kill to have. With an Oscar for Capote and a handful of films people thought he should’ve won one for, Hoffman left four films to be released with his death in February of this year. The final two films in The Hunger Games franchise were mostly completed, of course, but the two that are most interesting are God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man.
The Jennifer Lawrence franchise was an interesting choice for an actor that avoided mainstream fare for large portions of his career, of course, but sometimes as a mainstream actor you do a film or two for them and then you go back to doing films for you. The Hunger Games sequels were for them, for his career as a mainstream actor who could be in high level roles in big budget films. He could cash in on his credibility as one of the best actors of his generation for a substantive paycheck to appear in a summer blockbuster.
A Most Wanted Man, however, is for that artist inside who could never be satisfied.
Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) has been smuggled into Germany after having escaped torture and imprisonment in both his native Chechnya and his father’s home country of Russia. Classified as an escaped Muslim terrorist, he comes up on the radar of German intelligence officer Gunter (Hoffman) assigned to Hamburg. Hamburg is where the 9/11 attacks were planned and as such his role is to use the Muslim networks in the city to develop assets and intelligence against the radical elements waging jihadist terrorism. He has bigger fish to fry in a man who promises peace (Homayoun Ershadi) but somehow still seems to appear to be funding terrorism. His goal is to use Issa, heir to tens of millions of Euros, to lure out this man and turn him into an asset. It’s not that easy, though, as American intelligence and proper German law enforcement want the easy score.
It’s up to Gunter and his team to use a number of people involved, from Issa’s idealistic lawyer (Rachel McAdams) to a banker (Willem Dafoe) trying to cleanse his bank of the sins of his Russian money launderer father, to use the carrot approach. Gunter has 72 hours to put his plan together or the easy approach, arrest everyone involved and forcibly get the information required, will become the plan forward.
With a number of elements from the book changed, to eliminate the critique of then American policy of extraordinary rendition and use of torture, and it makes the film work a little easier. The book and film are both from Jean le Carre’s staple of writing, the cloak and dagger slow burn spy film, but the controversial elements have been taken out because they’d shine an unnecessary light on the film for the wrong reasons. It’d be that “spy film that criticized America” as opposed to merely being a great spy film for many people and for the film the former isn’t needed.
That time in cinema is gone and it never found an audience outside of the strict group of people it was targeting for awards (and political bona fides). Controversy of this kind hasn’t sold tickets in a long time at the box office, as even in the heyday of films criticizing American behavior abroad there wasn’t a mass rush of people flocking to the theatres, and as such it makes better sense to change that part. It makes the film work a little easier than the book does, as well, as it focuses on a man trying to be a scalpel and not a broadsword in a world where the latter is expected.
Instead we have a film about old school, cloak and dagger style spy tactics instead of the usual Bond/Bourne school of an action film with some spy elements to it. This is about intelligence, not progressing from one action scene to another, and as such it’s a slow grind. It’s what spy films have traditionally been, about the nature of intelligence gathering as opposed to being the spy versions of their science fiction brethren: excuses to be a little creative in an action film. This is about as note perfect as it gets for a true spy thriller; it’s not about the gadgets or action scenes. It’s about a specific task and the day to day of slowly snaring a trap using good intelligence gathering techniques (instead of 24 inspired stupidity and Deus ex Machina devices).
The film moves slowly in terms of its plot but it doesn’t feel like it, mainly because of how good Hoffman is. Using a German accent that doesn’t feel as ridiculous as it should, Gunter is a man trying to atone for the sins of his past espionage work with his current assignment. Everything about what he’s doing now is influenced by what happened, and his guilt.
It’s an interesting character as he’s a veteran field operative in charge of a group intent on following his methods. His superiors feel otherwise but Gunter is a man who has seen what happens when people screw up and wants the violence kept to an absolute minimum. It’s extraordinary from Hoffman; there’s a veteran tradecraft from Gunter that only an actor with Hoffman’s resume could effectively pull off. He’s not the action hero that you expect from a spy tackling counterterrorism; he’s a spy, much like Gust from Charlie Wilson’s War, and one imagines that if Gust had his own film he’d be an awful lot like Gunter.
This is a man who knows the consequences but is willing to play with a little bit of fire for the greater good. It’s a fascinating one from Hoffman, who commands the screen, and will rightfully be up there with his great performances when all is said and done.
Director: Anton Corbijn Writer: Andrew Bovell based off the novel of the same name by Jean le Carre Notable Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Williem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Robin Wright, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.