I found it practically impossible to watch A Most Wanted Man without constantly being aware that the man I was watching on the screen was dead and this was his last film. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of Hollywood’s most unlikely stars and often one of the best things about the films he was in; this swansong, based on a John Le Carré novel, may not be one of the ones Hoffman will be most remembered for, but it is definitely a worthy final addition to his filmography.
As with many of the films based on Le Carré’s works, A Most Wanted Man is not so much a spy thriller as a drama, with a distinct tendency towards tragedy. Hoffman plays a jaded German espionage operative keeping an eye on the Muslim community in Hamburg, and when a former Chechen radical enters his hunting grounds illegally he hopes to use him as an asset in his investigation of a Muslim philanthropist with possible ties to Al Qaeda. While the film doesn’t present us with as much of a quagmire of connections, motives and plots as a successful other recent Le Carré adaptation did – and Hoffman’s operative is a descendant in spirit of George Smiley – it is about similar themes. Years ago the Swiss magazine Du published an issue on John Le Carré titled “All Sorts of Betrayal”, and apparently this is still what the author keeps returning to. All of these betrayals, whether of friends, lovers, or of organisations and countries, are finally private at heart, and A Most Wanted Man sees its main character trying to weigh betrayals, to tempt, bully and cajole others to violate trust to prevent a bigger, more final betrayal.
Except, of course, in Le Carré’s world there is no such thing as a lesser evil, and most definitely not one that can be trusted to end up being lesser. Even more, Hoffman’s body language, the way he looks at people and practices a studied cynicism, all these make it clear that A Most Wanted Man will not end happily for anyone. And this fatalism is in part why this is a good but not a great film: only in rare moments is there the urgency that comes from hoping, and even believing, that this may not end in tears. There is a grain of… faith in something other than jaded pragmatism, perhaps? Belief that even in espionage people, organisations and countries can still hold on to vestiges of a soul? And this belief keeps the main character going, but the tone of the film is as hangdog as Hoffman himself, though without his occasional sparks of hope and of righteous anger. As an audience, though, it’s difficult not to know better: this will end badly, so why commit emotionally? If anything, the film prompts us to be even more jaded than its protagonist, and this works against A Most Wanted Man.
As may the real-life circumstances: Hoffman’s death hanging over the film may make it more poignant, but this poignancy is not in sync with the film. I was prompted to sadness, though not by Le Carré’s story so much as by knowing that this is the last time we’re seeing a lead performance by an actor gone too soon. A Most Wanted Man is a good film, it’s crafted beautifully, its performances are consistently strong, but its greatest tragedy may be that it serves most as a reminder of a different tragedy that has nothing to do with the film itself. Perhaps it will be easier to see it for itself in five to ten years, when it no longer feels quite as much like a obituary.