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A Most Wanted Man (2014) Review

Updated on August 4, 2014

I came to this movie for 3 reasons: 1) The talented director Anton Corbijn, who blew me away with ‘The American’; 2) a story by John le Carré, the celebrated actual British spy-turned-spy novelist; and 3) my favorite actor, the arts’ missing jewel, Philip Seymour Hoffman. I expected this combination to pack a whalloping punch, to blow away the cinema world with a bold show of force. And now that I’ve seen it, surprisingly, I know that won’t happen. Because, contrary to expectation, this film is heady but heartfelt, large in theme but subtle in execution, accessible but elusive. It is, in fact, a beautiful little work of art. And what a talent it takes to create such a small thing with the immense responsibility of such grand resources!

Corbijn first accomplishes this feat in the look of his film. Although we might expect stoic, grandly-planned shots for the subject matter at hand (the spy agencies of several nations going head-to-head over a Muslim target and his millions), what we get instead is a lot of handheld camerawork, lending much of the narrative a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants feel. This is fitting if you think about it, because the story concerns hidden and secret people, voyeurism, and adhoc planning. This does not, however, prevent the cinematography from having its own strikingly beautiful moments.

The next important element that creates this Small Gem Effect is the care taken to understand each character, and to build/reveal/suggest relationships between them. Some relationships are explicit and fragile, others are hidden and complex. But none of the main characters feels like an afterthought, and all of them open the narrative into a thousand possibilities by the end.

Perhaps the most striking Small Gem feature here, though, is the perfectly understated performance of the “central” character, Hoffman. Think about the weight on an American actor of playing a German spy disliked and mistrusted by much of the international spy community. How easy it would be to play it larger than life, to play up the accent, the moxy! But no, says Hoffman, that is not this man. This man is cold, distant, quiet, smart—always calculating, like a chess player far ahead of everyone else—but beneath it lies some compassion, which can’t be revealed as compassion lest it signify a weakness. His character feels thoroughly researched, understood, and true to the nature of such a man in the real world. And although his German accent is underplayed and slightly off, his past remains mysterious enough that we are allowed to wonder whether it might be put-on…

Of course, that exact openness is the true genius of this piece. At first I kept expecting everything to have deeper and deeper layers, to keep unravelling. But then the filmmaker taught me something: that although those layers might be true, so what? What matters is the story at hand. And sometimes the stories you branch off into your mind can be a lot more meaningful and revealing than something explicity given to you. So when the end comes, and you’re sitting in stunned and/or confused silence, just remember that, whatever you think actually happened, you could be right. And then let that go, because it’s not really the point. The point is the question, that burning, eternal paranoia.


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      4 years ago

      Great review. I agree, the character work was incredible—understated yet so rich! This is such a timely piece exploring global issues that affect us all, but aren’t given much dedicated screen time. Great movie!


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