"A Most Wanted Man,” in which Philip Seymour Hoffman gives his last major performance, is set in Hamburg, the city where Mohamed Atta and some of his co-conspirators lived prior to the 9/11 attacks. A few years later, German and American intelligence officers, anguished by earlier lapses, are scrambling to disrupt any further terrorist operations there. The movie is based on John le Carré’s 2008 novel, and it’s driven by his contempt for the crudity of American intelligence methods in the Bush-Cheney era. In this telling, the Americans have corrupted the German intelligence services except for one brilliant and eccentric man, a high-functioning wreck named Günther Bachmann (Hoffman). Gut-heavy, relentless, sleepless, womanless, Bachmann is both subtle and brutal. Like George Smiley, le Carré’s earlier creation, he plays the long game. Hisspecial unit cultivates contacts in Hamburg’s refugee community who might know something; Bachmann finds a quarry, turns him, and moves up the ladder of culpability until he can force someone to betray the players who finance terrorist operations. Le Carré wrote a mordant, morally complicated book. The movie, which was written by Andrew Bovell and directed by Anton Corbijn, is much condensed and a little tepid; Bachmann’s knowing and cynical tirades about the nature of anti-terrorist work have been cut back. Still, it’s le Carré’s material; it was shot in dark, lurid, vital Hamburg; Hoffman is the star; and I was completely held.
Bachmann’s immediate concern is a strange young man, with a thick black beard and frightened eyes, named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim who washes up in Hamburg after being tortured by the Russians. The handsome Dobrygin, a well-known Russian actor, gives an affecting performance as a traumatized man holding on to his austere religion in a rich, sinful Western city. In the book, Karpov delivers speeches with a manic eloquence tinged with irony. In the movie, he’s tentative, withdrawn, and fascinating in his brooding silence. An idealistic young German human-rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams), who may be falling in love with Karpov, assists him in a remarkable claim: it seems that Karpov’s father, a vicious Russian criminal who is now dead, had deposited millions of dollars in a Hamburg bank for him, and he has come to the city to collect the money.
Is Karpov a jihadist or just a pious and very wealthy refugee? Bachmann persuades the bank to pay out the money, which, he reasons, might attract Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim scholar and humanitarian in Hamburg, whose charity work Bachmann suspects is a front for bankrolling extremists. Bachmann manipulates everyone to lay a trap for Abdullah, but the regular intelligence forces, German and American, close in on Karpov. They’re sure that he’s a terrorist, and they want him off the streets and “interrogated.” Both the movie and the book are haunted by le Carré’s profound bitterness over the way that intelligence services—even the “good” ones—inevitably chew up ordinary people. We live in the fallen le Carré world, where deceit and betrayal lurk beneath every assertion. Only the naïve tell the truth.
The movie, as if in homage to Smiley’s Cold War days, returns to the old-fashioned trappings of espionage: cigarette-pack drop-offs of intelligence, planted bugs and surveillance cameras, meetings in forlorn dives. Corbijn’s previous film, “The American,” which starred George Clooney as a hired assassin, was unconvincing and absurdly chic, but the director has sobered up. He stages several conversations between Bachmann and Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a charming C.I.A. official who understands Bachmann’s needs but may be playing him, and Corbijn and the actors skillfully bring out the sinister undertones in these exchanges. They’re the best thing in the movie, but a familiar problem arises: le Carré’s complicated plot and his thrillingly cryptic dialogue can’t be adequately conveyed in two hours. The finest dramatization of le Carré remains the BBC’s 1979 seven-part adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” directed by John Irvin, in which the elaborate mock-politeness of élite English manners garlands the arcane conspiracies at glorious length.
Bachmann’s nature seems to reflect Hoffman’s unsettled state in his final days. Bachmann smokes constantly and pours himself whiskey neat. Hoffman, his shirt hanging out, tears through rooms, growling at everyone in German-accented English. He almost never smiles, almost never looks at people until he turns threateningly toward them with a bulldog frown. The film gives le Carré’s bitterly intelligent man some streaks of tenderness, which bring him closer to a conventional movie hero. Yet the heroic quality in Hoffman doesn’t need softening. A great actor, he carried his despair and his outsized sense of responsibility with him to the end.