A MOST WANTED MAN evokes the best of the Cold War thrillers of the 1960s. Hardly a surprise, considering its based on a novel by the master of that genre, John le Carre. Directed with that genres same sense of understated, but lethal, suspense borne of uncertainty by Anton Corbijn it updates the action from Commies versus Capitalists to the War on Terror that has left everyone grasping at straws.
The man stuck in the middle is Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a deliberately small anti-terrorist bureau in Hamburg. With a dicey professional history, and a worldview that is less didactic that those of his superiors in Berlin, he has run afoul of them and of the Americans with his reluctance to arrest Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a mysterious Chechen national newly arrived for reasons that are a mystery to everyone. Rather than arrest him immediately, Bachmann prefers to see what he is up to, to track his movements, identify his contacts, and then act accordingly. Its a measured philosophy that makes everyone nervous. He also prefers to keep tabs on the Muslim peace activist with curious ties to missing money that may or may not be funding the very terrorism he denounces.
The tension of the story is not in anything so mundane as car chases or shoot-out. Instead, it is the tiny revelations that make up the story, the guesses, right and wrong, about what someone will or wont do; the interrogations that are so subtle that the people being interrogated has no clue what is actually happening, or that they are being turned. A scene of a series of documents being signed builds with a delicious, beautifully rendered sense of dread and expectation with each signature.
Though the color and the camera work are both cold and gray in color and mood, the story is a riveting character study with Hoffman giving one of the best, most nuanced performances of his all-too short career. Affable, rumpled, he seeds his performance with the careful control Bachmann maintains in any situation, making his few outbursts all the more powerful. This is a man who has seen the worst that people can do in the name of justice, and operates with the certainty that he can, in fact, make a difference. His Bachmann is a man determined to create order, and hope, in a murky world where the rules are what is necessary at any given moment, and, as Lord Palmerston cynically observed, there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests. Its a sentiment brought to life by the confluence of motives and interests of all concerned. The international banker (Willem Dafoe) with a flexible moral compass, a human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) with her heart in the right place, and thats the problem, and a flinty CIA agent (Robin Wright) whose easy demeanor does nothing to mask the fact that its her country that is calling all the shots. And at the heart of it, in a beautiful, poignant performance, is Dobrygin as Issa, introverted, doleful, suspicious, devout, and the perfect embodiment of everything that .
A conversation between Hoffmans Bachmann and the flinty CIA agent (Robin Wright) is a brilliantly incisive dialectic on Realpolitik, laying out without a trace of humanity what true believers will do in pursuit of doing what is best for the world at large. Or, rather, their considered opinion of what is best. For all the reliance on intel, for all the cold-blooded logic on show, it all comes down to hunches and personal convictions that have nothing to do with current events and everything to do with ideology influenced by everything from the latest leak from the other side to childhood traumas.
By the end of A MOST WANTED MAN, you may feel as though you yourself have been through the covert mind games practiced by so many of the protagonists in the film, depending on how your reaction to the climax of the film jibes with your preconceived notions at the beginning of the film. Challenging, intelligent, it emcompasses the best and worst of human nature with unflinching precision and wistful melancholy.