A Chechen Muslim surfaces in the port city of Hamburg and becomes the central figure in a complex web of international intrigue in A Most Wanted Man, a first-rate spy thriller from director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) from the 2008 John le Carré novel.
As an opening title scrawl informs us, Hamburg found itself the subject of heated scrutiny after the September 11 terror attacks. Mohammed Atta, believed to be the mastermind behind 9/11, formed the Hamburg terror cell in the 1990s, recruiting key operatives and plotting the attacks from within the city.
Years later, security in the city is at its highest alert. In A Most Wanted Man, Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin) is instantly identified via CCTV cameras after he enters Hamburg via a shipping container. Russian intelligence has labeled him a militant jihadist, and his actions are closely monitored by German espionage agents working behind the scenes.
Those agents are led by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, with a thick German accent) and also include the no-nonsense Irna Frey (Nina Hoss) and Maximillian (Daniel Brühl, who has surprisingly little to do here). Instead of picking Karpov up, they intend to monitor his activities in the hopes of landing a bigger target.
A Most Wanted Man is at its best during the film’s first half, which keeps us on our toes regarding Karpov’s intentions in Hamburg. The sympathetic Muslim family that gives him shelter hires human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) to secure his legal status in Germany. Karpov insists that she contact banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), who will somehow assist him.
Is Issa a terrorist, or a political refugee? While the screenplay by Andrew Bovell (Edge of Darkness), faithfully adapted from the le Carré novel, is careful not to play all its cards too soon, tension begins to sag towards the end of the second act, as we learn more and more about Issa and discover exactly where the film is going.
Still, that doesn’t stop the climactic scenes from being nail-bitingly suspenseful. In typical le Carré fashion, agency politics plays a huge role as Bachmann’s group of spies goes up against both German authorities who want to bring in Karpov, headed by Dieter Mohr (a slimy Rainer Bock) and the American CIA, represented by agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright).
Despite being set in Germany, all dialogue is in English, with the US stars donning a German inflection and placed next to German co-stars. The effect is mostly seamless: while McAdams doesn’t always feel authentic in her role, both Dafoe and Hoffman are surprisingly convincing. Hoffman carries the film with his quiet, controlled performance, and his final scenes are unforgettable.
A Most Wanted Man is also noteworthy as one of the actor’s final completed projects; both it and God’s Pocket premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, while the final two Hunger Games movies were still filming when the actor died. His Bachmann is not a typical role, but it’s one that showcases Hoffman’s range and talent as an actor.
For fans of serious espionage – the kind of material that John le Carré has been churning out for six decades – A Most Wanted Man is a first-rate production that combines a timely premise with edge-of-your-seat tension. It’s a lot more accessible than the last le Carré adaptation to hit screens, the intentionally obtuse Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the perfect antidote after a summer of over-the-top blockbusters.