Our Man in Hamburg

In what would become his final film role, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman inhabits a classic fictional persona, that of the downbeat institutional man. As Günther Bachmann, a career spy heading an anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg, Hoffman — who died in February of a heroin overdose — puts an ingenious modern spin on the existential anti-hero who, against all odds and caught up in a tangle of lies and deceit, tries to do the right thing. Jaded, bedraggled and singed by worldly cynicism, Hoffman’s hangdog spy is nonetheless a man of furious intent, bent on nailing an Islamic terrorist cell even when he knows such erasures are quickly replaced by yet more hate and violence. 

It’s a heartbreaking performance, and an unlikely but somehow apt swan song for the greatest actor of his generation.

Based on a book by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn (Control), A Most Wanted Man is a very adult thriller; with infinite patience, and without shedding a drop of blood, the film weaves an intricate web of espionage that swaps gadgets and guns for the trickier stuff of ambition, collusion and international realpolitik. As Bachmann’s “company” tracks the arrival of a Chechnyan refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who may have ties to an Islamic terrorist group, their mission is complicated by the hidden agendas of American and German anti-terrorism agencies, as well as the activities of an idealist immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) seeking to help the Chechnyan gain asylum.

The plot of A Most Wanted Man moves forward like a slow but intense game of chess, in which some players are knights, leaping over logic, and some are pawns whose good offices are sacrificed for the so-called greater good. There are strong performances throughout — Willem Dafoe is solid as a banker who may be funding destruction and Robin Penn freezes the screen as a calculating American attaché. 

But this movie rightly belongs to Hoffman. As a staunch, debauched and aging spy bitten by failure but driven by fractured hope, his performance is a masterstroke of subtle emotion and thwarted desire. When Hoffman walks sullenly out of the film’s final frame, he looks like a ghost, a shadow passing into oblivion, never to return to this busted world.