Review: A Most Wanted Man

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Wars are no longer fought with massive armies on battlefields. Ever since computer technology has made itself essential to every facet of espionage, the methodology of modern war means taking seemingly minor, but meaningful steps. “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark,” explains Gunther Bachmann, a chief German intelligence officer in A Most Wanted Man. The question is, in a post-9/11 world, are there any true victories? A Most Wanted Man diligently examines this question through a microcosm, and its contemplative answers are ultimately devastating.

Hamburg, Germany has been on high alert ever since September 11th, 2001. As the epicenter of where those attacks where planned, there has been a vow to never allow such atrocities to develop again. It’s rare to find Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) without a cigarette in his mouth, such are the pressures of his work. Looking to rebound after an intelligence failure in Beirut, Bachmann’s unit has been alerted of the local arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a potential Muslim radical. Half Chechen and half Russian, Karpov’s relationship to his family is conflicted, and his recent inheritance may end up going to fund Islamic terrorists. Before Bachmann can get to Karpov, he must work his influence over the banker (Willem Dafoe) overseeing the account, as well as a social worker named Annabel (Rachel McAdams) who is looking to assure the well being of her client. Bachmann is also under pressure from a rival German intelligence unit as well as a CIA operative (Robin Wright) looking to pursue a more threatening course of action.

Unlike his previous film, the narratively spare The American, Anton Corbijn’s latest is heavily plotted. Based on a novel of the same name by John le Carre, A Most Wanted Man is dense, but never suffocates in its exposition, keeping the proceedings efficient. Only a slight ellipsis halfway through detracts from logic, yet it also allows the story to continue moving. The ensemble is very much in top form, from the solemn subtlety supplied by Dobrygin to the veiled manipulation coming from Wright. One senses that McAdams may occasionally be in over her head, but her performance is workmanlike enough to merit legitimacy. Never before has Philip Seymour Hoffman looked this weathered in a film, and he fits Gunther Bachmann like a glove. Imposing in size and measured in approach, Hoffman delivers a deliberately low key performance that arrives at a wrenching unraveling at the film’s climax. While his life was tragically cut short, this is an exceptional final note for him as a leading man, among the finest of his generation.

If A Most Wanted Man is the most complex of Anton Corbijn’s films to date, then it is also his most active and thoughtful. There’s a consistent anxiety that seeps its way in from the first frames and only grows as the stakes become higher. Corbijn reflects this with a good deal of handheld photography, the jagged edges of the frame giving each scene fluidity and uncertainty. While it’s possible to wish for more perfect compositions and steady frames, this aesthetic would be less appealing in the grimy, monochromatic streets of Hamburg. Where A Most Wanted Man truly impresses is in its consideration of the conduct of the war on terror. The contrasting philosophies between the patient and the active come to a head in a scene between Hoffman and Wright, who debate the costs of going after Karpov or trying to eliminate him. Wars of imperialism have ceased long ago, so how does one define a victory now? By the end of A Most Wanted Man, we are shown that the costs for these new victories are profoundly unsettling.

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~ by romancinema on July 29, 2014.

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