Unfolding with the hopeless solemnity of a tragedy, A Most Wanted Man is a confrontation of personal demons that concludes without redemption, and a close-to-the-bone reminder of the still unfathomable loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman this past February. In the film’s final moments, Hoffman’s character is left howling expletives at the heavens, unable to comprehend how he ended up where he is, and the uncomfortable real life resonance is almost unbearable.
That ending isn’t about a higher power deftly slamming a door shut, but Anton Corbijn’s soul-searching spy drama is about higher powers shutting people out. Hoffman plays Hamburg-based German intelligence officer Günther Bachmann, head of a special ops team tracking a wanted Chechen Muslim, who could possibly lead him up the command chain of a Middle-Eastern terrorist group. But conflicting interests of the local police department and the CIA leaves Günther only seventy-two hours to follow the trail. His uncooperative colleagues want instant results, only interested in “yay, us” headlines and seemingly unconcerned with the long term game of peacekeeping, which Günther neatly likens to using a minnow to catch a barracuda, then a barracuda to catch a shark.
Confined mostly to surveillance vans, integration cells and boardrooms, Hoffman is himself something of a shark in the role, constantly moving around these various fish tanks with a wary, weary energy. A definite air of apology hangs over Günther, an acknowledgement that better days are behind him, and Hoffman’s nonstop heavy breathing is the sound of a man shouldering significant guilt, after a botched sting operation sees Günther exiled from Berlin to Hamburg. Showing us the state in which he’s lived each day since, every inch of Hoffman body is tensed, its language fitfully uncomfortable. He’s played broad-browed, doleful-jowled scruffbags at the end of their tether before, but the absolute guile with which he throws himself into the shadowed gloom of Günther’s private pains and public outbursts is extraordinary, even for Hoffman.
Less apologetic in the face of his superiors’ indignation, Günther holds an unyielding, furious gaze, barely battened down for professional inscrutability. Always on mission, the first sign of incompetence from those purposefully out to impede his objectives is enough to flare volcanic outbursts, and if the workplace is supposed to offer tacit recognition of our status as human beings, Günther exists on the lowest rung after burning all the bridges of peers who loathe him. But that resentment is exactly what fuels his work in the field. He’s a top dog agent by virtue of being such a ferocious underdog.
Intimidating and unforgiving in a manner that at times suggests Günther has no pity chip, Hoffman makes him charming when the occasion calls for it, his messianic monologues on how best to wage the war on terror shot through with ribald, hangdog humour. And when he isn’t battling bureaucrats, Hoffman visibly passes through Günther’s anger threshold, shifting subtly into a state of operational calm. His drive to get results is at the expense of all else, but Hoffman makes Günther’s whisky-soaked work ethic charismatic and compelling, particularly when late in the film, his self-interested need for atonement turns into urgent humanitarianism.
Bubbling emotions bunched tight under Günther’s trenchcoat, there’s an explicit temptation to read into this portrait of a tortured soul so focused on his job that he doesn’t care about himself, and see something of the actor’s own mind at the time of his death. When Günther is interrogating a young human rights lawyer played by Rachel McAdams and asks, “is that all the fight you’re gonna give me?” you find yourself wondering just how hard Hoffman fought and whether he asked himself the same question.
Inescapably, his last leading role was always going to be a sombre affair, a mood not helped by material about one man’s purgatorial descent, but if the way Hoffman left us casts a pall over what we’re watching, it’s to the film’s benefit, allowing us to fully embrace the protagonist’s tremendous personal pain and a thrillingly downbeat ending, unlike any this year. The film itself is airless and claustaphobic, but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance was full of life.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 15, 2014