Anton Corbijn's high-tensile political drama A Most Wanted Man, which opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the German chief of an anti-terror unit in Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg, we learn, was where Mohammad Atta and an Islamist terror cell coordinated the 9/11 attacks under the radar of international intelligence communities. And it's here, years later, where the burden of that most egregious oversight has made political figures jumpy and ill-at-ease, and where a Chechen Muslim illegally arrives, riling up both German and American security forces.
Based on the novel by John le Carré, this is not only a marvelous script which couples a fine premise and massively conflicted characters with Corbijn's deliberate, and often somber, visual aesthetic, it's also—tragically—another remarkable piece of acting by Hoffman. Barring the final two Hunger Games films, this is the last movie Hoffman made before his death in February.
As Gunther Bachmann, Hoffman is a churlish, chain-smoking, heavy-set spy, who (much like Hamburg at large) carries with him constantly the burden of a failed mission. "Men lost their lives," an American diplomat (Robin Wright) reminds Bachmann over a simmering coffee confab midway through the film. "Men who trusted you."
Bachmann finds himself in the midst of two potentially major busts. He must choreograph a scheme to utilize the Chechen Muslim as bait for a much bigger fish, a terrorist benefactor named Faisal Abdullah, who is funneling funds to extremists vis-à-vis an artificial shipping company.
Bachmann speaks slowly, carefully. He pours himself brown liquor to go with his cigarettes as he peruses files late every night. Hoffman, whose German accent is certainly less refined and less practiced than his Capote lisp, embodies the persona so fully that it fails to distract. Though Rachel McAdams and Willem DaFoe command screen time in concurrent storylines, Hoffman is the film's magnetic centerpiece, its idling engine, its ticking bomb.