With paunchy cheeks, pale skin and watery eyes that look like they’ve been injected with washing liquid, Philip Seymour Hoffman lumbers across Anton Corbijn’s yellow-lit Hamburg with the brave resignation of a man who knows his time is counted. Even if the film were not haunted by the specter of Hoffman’s tragic untimely death, the low weary rumble of his German-accented voice expresses the disillusionment of a moribund Europe whose ideals have been dissolved in a pool of political machinations and growing Islamic supremacism. As disillusioned German counterterrorism agent Gunther Bachmann, he bears the guilt of both his profession’s failure to prevent 9/11 in his very city (mirrored by another, personal failure of his own in Beirut) and questionable western counterterrorism policies that find themselves all directed towards Issa Karpov, a Muslim Chechen illegal immigrant whom Bachmann intends to use as a pawn in his campaign against a popular Tariq Ramadan-esque Muslim intellectual who may not be as peaceful and tolerant as he presents himself.
Based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man does not succeed as well as Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in transcribing the “Land Of Confusion” so well described in the Genesis song and of which the espionage world is something of a microcosm. Anton Corbijn films his situations and characters with a studious diligence specific to European thrillers, directing most of his efforts towards capturing Bachmann’s determination to see through a job whose moral uncertainties he is all too familiar with. Every scene in which he appears is emblazoned with the iciest variations of the colour wheel, making the pervasive yellow lighting of street and interior lamps feel at times like a depressed person’s smile. If it’s an effective way to transmit Bachmann’s state of mind, it also belies Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell’s lack of inspiration and courage in tackling what should be the film’s other most important character – Issa himself. A more audacious European directing-screenwriting team would have cast aside most of the spy intrigue to concentrate on the opposition between the two main characters, one a man dedicating his life and well-being to serving a country for reasons that are no longer clear to him and the other a man of no land, parentage or definite affiliation. Orphaned by a mother he has no memory of but a gold bracelet and a war criminal father whom he despises for conceiving him through rape, tortured by the Russian police into admitting acts of terrorism he most likely did not commit, present in Germany through illegal means and having found some possibility of peace in a possibly fundamentalist brand of Islam that makes him suspect, Issa doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. He and Bachmann each incarnate a different facet of the globalized world we live in, where cultural identities shift uneasily in search of stable coexistence and instinctive self-preservation has replaced genuine patriotism. Sadly, in spite of Grigoriy Dobrygin’s traumatized eyes and almost ghostly presence, Issa never quite comes into his own as a character. Instead of treating him as a man with a story to tell, Corbijn simplifies his suffering with absurdly reverent scenes of him praying that, along with the rather pointed reference to the meaning of his name and the scraggly beard he sports in his earliest scenes, turn him into some sort of Christ figure for all the victims of Western counterterrorism policies.
This ideological pandering, along with the miscasting of Rachel McAdams as Issa’s left-wing lawyer and tentative chaste lover (and just what was Daniel Brühl doing as one of Bachmann’s many interchangeable subordinates?), limits A Most Wanted Man’s potential to survey its very relevant subject with the veracity it deserves. As such, it functions as a capable thriller that depends largely on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s inestimable talent to reach a little higher, and only gets so far without him.