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“A Most Wanted Man” requires close attention

Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man."
Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man.” Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

“A Most Wanted Man,” based on the novel by John le Carré, is a spy drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Günther Bachmann, Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter, Willem Dafoe as Tommy Brue, and Robin Wright as Martha Sullivan.

It is an intelligent, engaging movie that requires close attention. Hoffman plays a German spy agent who is trying to capture a Chechen immigrant on the run named Issa Karpov, as well as a Muslim charitable fundraiser named Dr. Faisal Abdullah.

McAdams is a human rights attorney who seeks out Dafoe, the owner of a private bank, for a connection he might have to a client of hers (Karpov). Meanwhile, Robin Wright is an American CIA agent who meets with Hoffman’s character in Germany to try to reach a deal.

What raises suspicions about Dr. Abdullah is that while he was giving most of the money he raised to legitimate Muslim charities, he would also send a small amount (via a boating company) to terrorist organizations.

While this isn’t exactly an easy film to follow, it does a really good job of immersing the viewer in the spy world. There are no explosions or shootouts in the movie, unlike say the Bourne pictures, which might make it a harder sell for younger audiences, but I did not mind. The shifting character motivations in the narrative certainly keep you guessing.

There are a couple shortcomings in the movie, though. Early in the movie, a young man named Malik, who is an amateur boxer, and his widowed mother, decide to take Karpov in off the streets and in essence hide him from the authorities. There is no clear indication (a) what prompted them to do this and (b) why Karpov singled them out. In addition, we learn early on that Karpov is owed money and that is the reason he is initially seeking out Brue. Later, he changes his mind about wanting the money after all, which didn’t seem believable.

The movie is shot with many scenes in gray, which befits the movie’s bleak mood. Bachman is very cynical and is seen frequently drinking and smoking (Hoffman looked like he was in poor health in what would turn out to be his last completed movie).

His performance nonetheless is quite good, as it is nuanced and shows his character often being introspective. Also, key to the movie working as well as it does is McAdams, who may be the movie’s only character who has an idealistic view of people. She truly believes in Karpov’s innocence, which the movie leaves open-ended, and has some really nice vulnerable scenes with this young man who comes across as scared and confused.

There is a lot of surveillance and secretly listening in on conversations in the movie; after all, this is a spy movie.

Hoffman and his team were able to see Karpov entering Hamburg, Germany through cameras they had set up in the streets. Later on, the same team sets up cameras in an abandoned apartment, where Richter and Karpov are interacting, in order to get inside information on this Chechen. Then later when Brue is meeting privately with Dr. Abdullah, Brue is wearing a concealed wire, which Hoffman’s team is listening to in a nearby van.

While the movie’s low-key approach might not appeal to teens and young adults used to a lot of action (think Bond films), it is a satisfying experience for those who do not mind some intellect.

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