A Most Wanted Man is an exceptionally made film, with a great Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, that did pretty much nothing for me.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I do not delude myself into thinking that my reviews are gospel, or that they are even slightly useful as consumer advice. Fact of the matter is that I don’t know you. No offense, you’re probably really nice and are stimulating conversation, but it’s not possible for me to know every single person who reads my work, so I don’t know what you will or will not like. It’s why I rarely use pronouns like “we” or “you” and mostly stick to “I”. “I felt…” “I thought…” Because that’s what my reviews are, my own subjective opinion. If you find thoughts and points in my reviews that you think will help you decide whether to see or skip a film, then that’s a bonus to you! Whenever I deploy “you need to see this” or “you should stay away”, it’s typically because I selfishly want to see films I like succeed and films I dislike bomb. I may utterly despise Sex Tape and find it relentlessly unfunny, but that doesn’t mean that you might. You might even like it! You’d be wrong, but I’m not you so I wouldn’t know.
I bring this up because I am perfectly aware that a lot of people like A Most Wanted Man. I am perfectly aware that a lot of people think that it’s one of the best films released so far this year, and I can see why people like it. I can appreciate its artistry, the way that it’s shot, its deliberate pacing, its strong performances; all the technical stuff. But the film otherwise did nothing for me. Look, I am sorry, I really tried to get into A Most Wanted Man. I was there for the entire two hours desperately trying to get into it as something other than a piece of technical and artistic majesty… but I just couldn’t. I found the film cold, clinical, bereft of emotion; I get that that is the point, but I found it TOO cold, TOO clinical, TOO emotionless, if you catch my drift. I couldn’t break through into the film and the world of the film, so I instead spent the entire runtime watching plot happen at a deliberate pace. That is fine, if you like that sort of thing, and there are a lot of people that do, but it’s not really for me. Or, at least, if a film must just be plot happening, I need it to be of a fast enough or fun enough pace that I don’t notice or care about the lack emotion powering the whole thing until it’s too late.
In any case, A Most Wanted Man’s plot follows a German espionage group, led by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final lead role), as they attempt to track down the titular Most Wanted Man, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), an illegal refugee from Chechnya who may or may not have ties to the Al Qaeda terror cell that helped plot the 9/11 attacks. Issa himself appears to have done nothing wrong, only wishing to seek asylum in Germany and possibly access his departed father’s blood money, but he ends up being unwittingly manipulated and fought over by various intelligence agencies. Günther wants to use him to get to Muslim philanthropist and suspected terrorist bankroller Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), planning to turn him, and pretty much anyone else even remotely connected to him and Issa, including a German banker (Willem Dafoe) and the lawyer assigned to Issa’s case (Rachel McAdams), into assets to take down the members of Al Qaeda with real power. Günther’s higher-ups are more content to sell everyone involved down river to the Americans, who themselves would rather just take down Issa and everyone connected to him immediately, via extraordinary rendition, in order to score a PR win with the people back home.
As you can probably guess from the premise and the fact that this is a slow-moving spy drama, an adaptation of a John le Carré novel no less, the acting is the real star of the show, here. Robin Wright, who turns up as the liaison between Günther and the Americans, manages to balance warm confidant and steely not-totally-trustworthy professionalism with aplomb, frequently in the same scene. Dobrygin is very assured as Issa, a scared man out of his depth who never seems to quite grasp how everybody around him is manipulating him for their own ends. Willem Dafoe makes it 2 for 1 in Great 2014 Supporting Performances (like he’s going out of his way to apologise to me for being involved in Beyond: Two Souls or something) with a great turn as the banker who is practically forced into, and can’t quite handle, Günther’s spy game.
But, as should be really obvious by his mere presence, the standout is Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a sad reminder of what a talent we lost this year. Whereas Gary Oldman played George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a cold, detached yet efficient master spy, Hoffman plays Günther (who I feel is cut from pretty much the same cloth as Smiley, but feel free to post giant essay length differences between the two in the comments, I have a feeling I’m wrong on this) as a man who is just completely tired of all of this shit. Tired of the spy game, tired of the politics that hamper his work, tired of people who can’t or refuse to see the bigger picture that he can, and tired of both the fact that he has to ruin lives to get his men and of the people whose lives he has to ruin. He tries to put up a facade of humanity, he’s still able to joke with his colleagues and feign tolerance when he has to interact with those who conspire against him, but it’s weak and barely hides his tiredness. It’s subtle and understated, too, fitting excellently the mood of the film, and makes the one time when he does display an emotion that isn’t resignation a genuine shock. It reminds me a lot of his performance in Truman, which I found similarly restrained and non-showy, and it’s a fitting end for his leading man career; a reminder of how he could walk into a film and steal it out from under the noses of his more obviously-trying counterparts by just being the role.
Though the acting is the star of the film, that’s not to discredit the look and feel of the film. As you may have gathered, this is meant to be an old-fashioned spy thriller and director Anton Corbijn (previous of the excellent and similarly slow-paced Control and The American) turns out to be a perfect fit for this. He keeps the pace slow but not glacial, accurately reflecting the extremely slow speed that Günther’s process of espionage takes but having every scene effectively build to the end goal. The film is gorgeously shot but the world has a sexless and cold feel to it; despite the many great shots that the film throws up (one of my favourites involves a great usage of focussing during a pivotal scene), there is no beauty in the world of the film. But it also resists the urge to take shortcuts and make the world overly grim looking, there are no extremely grimy locals, no overly muted colour-palettes, the film doesn’t spend three-quarters of its runtime in council estates or the like. It feels very much real, like these are things that can and do happen on a frequent basis and it really helps the meditative mood, creating a world that I imagine is very easy to get lost in.
THAT BEING SAID… I couldn’t get into the film beyond appreciating its artistry. Again, believe me, I tried. I tried to break through. I tried to get invested in the characters. I tried to see Philip Seymour Hoffman and Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams as the characters that they were playing instead of just actors doing really good performances. But I couldn’t. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t. The problem with it for me, the same problem I had with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 2011, is that the film is just too cold. When I go to see a film, I usually like to lose myself in the world, to meet new and interesting characters whose desires and fates I can be invested in in some way. If a film isn’t aiming to do that, then I need enough spectacle or a fast-enough pace or at least a good sense of fun in order to not care too much about that. I like to be invested emotionally, on a deeper level than admiration.
A Most Wanted Man doesn’t really do that. It does want to be about, on at least one of its levels, the weight and toll that comes from flipping people into assets, on the both the part of the flipper and the flippee, but I found the film too emotionally guarded to let me in on that level. I could sit there and understand that that was what it was going for, but that’s it. I didn’t connect emotionally to anyone because the film wouldn’t let me. Initially, I mistook the film for just being soulless, but I realised that to be patently untrue by about the halfway mark, this instead being a conscious design choice. So, instead of fully connecting with and being invested in proceedings, I mostly sat back in my chair frustratingly watching plot pieces move into place real slow like. I understand that this will be to many people’s taste, that they will get onto the film’s wavelength and have no such quarrel, but I like to have that deeper connection with films, not just spending the runtime standing there looking through the window whilst everyone inside throws a giant party. (For an example of the kind of artistic majesty film that did resonate with me on a deeper level than just appreciation for its impeccable design, I point you in the direction of Under The Skin.)
I can nitpick the score, though, mind. Whereas the rest of the film, in the way that it’s shot and plotted and paced and acted, perfectly encapsulates the slow-burning emotionally-distant spy drama that it’s going for, the score is too lively for my tastes. Everything else is understated and reserved, but the score is a bit too open and traditional, loudly ominous and dramatic in a way that felt like a drunken frat boy turning up in the audience of a Shakespeare production filled with quiet appreciative upper-class theatre lovers and yelling out “OH, SHIT, SON!” whenever anything important happens. Pretty sure I counted several instances of it even starting up when somebody said something dramatic, the score equivalent of said, “OH, SHIT, SON!” I feel it could have been more understated and more trusting of the audience, especially since the rest of the film decides that the audience is smart enough to follow along without having every plot beat spelt out for them.
Between this and 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which I saw in cinemas when it came out and had basically the exact same opinion on as I do this), I get the feeling that John le Carré stories just aren’t for me. I can appreciate them as artistic achievements but my enjoyment of them really doesn’t go any further. I did find the last fifteen minutes of this rather tense and the ending, whilst initially giving me the same “Err, don’t we still have 15 minutes left of the film to show?” feeling that If I Stay had, has been rising in my estimations the more I let it sit, neither connected with me on the emotional level. I was tense for the plot, to see if everything that the plot had been building towards would come crashing down at the last minute, rather than for character reasons, whether Günther gets his man or not and what would happen to everyone involved. My connection with his works doesn’t go any further than the “these are some really well made films” level. When I get some free time, I’ll hunt down some of his books and some more of his films and see if it’s just these films where this is a problem, or whether the books carry something that the films lack, or whether this turns out to just be my overall feelings on his various works.
For now, though, I’ll just have to concede that A Most Wanted Man just isn’t for me. It’s a stunningly well-made film with a magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, but that’s all that it managed to connect with me on, the constructed surface level. I concede that I am in the minority about this and that fans of John le Carré novels and adaptations will probably love it. I also concede that people who like the idea of slow-moving yet intelligent spy dramas will probably also love it. But I was left cold by this one, and seeing as a review consists of my personal thoughts on a movie, that’s all I can concretely tell you about it.
Callum Petch sees you through his spy glasses, baby. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!