Philip Seymour Hoffman Leaves Indelible Bond In 'Most Wanted Man'

The late actor hit his peak in the adaptation of John le Carre's 2008 novel. The movie isn't a clean piece of storytelling, but Hoffman connects with viewers on a level most actors never approach.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman appears in a supporting role in two more Hunger Games films. But his last significant work is starring in the new espionage drama "A Most Wanted Man." The film is based on a 2008 novel by John le Carre and also features Rachel McAdams, Willem Defoe and Robin Wright. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Part of me wishes that Philip Seymour Hoffman's final lead performance in "A Most Wanted Man" wasn't very good. I know that sounds perverse, but if he'd been flailing as an actor at the end, it would make his loss easier to bear from an artistic, if not a human, perspective. The thing is, though, the actor we see in this movie is at his absolute peak. This might even be my favorite Hoffman performance of all - dammit. It's not by a long shot my favorite of his films, but it's a strong platform. It gives him the material he needs. In this adaptation of John le Carre's 2008 novel, Hoffman plays German spymaster Gunther Bachmann, whose a bit like a post-Cold War, post-9/11 version of le Carre's most famous spy George Smiley. The director of a secretive antiterrorist unit, Bachmann smokes and drinks heavily and spends hours staring into video monitors. But this self-described cave dweller has a rare grasp of human complexity. He understands, like Smiley, that in espionage, you don't blunder in and whisk people away to be tortured. You forge bonds. You make suspects see it's in their interest to come to your side. You play the long game. The setting of "A Most Wanted Man" is Hamburg, where an escaped prisoner named Issa Karpov has just hopped off a boat. He's the devout Muslim son of a corrupt Russian general and a Chechen woman. And it emerges that he has a vast inheritance waiting for him at a German bank. Many in the intelligence community want to whisk Issa away for extreme interrogation, but Bachmann doesn't think he's a true jihadist. Bachmann thinks this sprawling port city is full of confused people with mixed sympathies and that his German superiors and hovering CIA agents are poised to destroy both lives and potential leads to bigger targets. Director Anton Corbijn serves up plenty of good foggy, rainy ambiguity. But "A Most Wanted Man" is not a clean piece of storytelling. The novel isn't either. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of free range terrorism, le Carré had to relearn the art of puzzle making. The screenwriter Andrew Bovell takes that puzzle apart for the screen and then doesn't quite know what to do with all the pieces. Among the characters drawn into Issa's orbit are a Turkish mother and son, a German banker, played by Willem Dafoe, who's struggling with the corrupt legacy of his father and a CIA string-puller, played by Robin Wright, whose sympathies are veiled in a way that makes Bachmann and the audience squirm. The movie doesn't really snap into focus until the last 30 minutes when Bachmann's people roughly kidnap Issa's lawyer and human rights advocate played by Rachel McAdams and toss her in a cell. As she lies on a hard bed, Bachmann attempts to convince her that where the young man's well-being is concerned, they're on the same side.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MOST WANTED MAN")

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Gunther Bachmann) Your choice is between us and nobody. The clock is ticking. You know they'll find him, and when they do, he'll be on the first plane back to Russia unless the Americans want him dead. We won't know where he is and nor will he.

RACHEL MCADAMS: (As Annabel Richter) He doesn't want the money. He just doesn't want it.

HOFFMAN: (As Gunther Bachmann) Half radical - half rich kid - half Russian - half Chechen - loves his mother - hates his father. You and I both know he's a (unintelligible) that has no idea what he wants.

EDELSTEIN: You listen to Hoffman in that scene and think, I'd do anything he told me. Many actors can attain emotional authenticity, but Hoffman's work here is intellectually true. He gives Bachmann every ounce of his own moral integrity. You feel no gap between the actor and his role. As Hoffman grew heavier and more sodden in the last year of his life, he became, as an actor, even more intensely inward. There's a great sadness in the character of Bachmann but, also, glimmers of childlike hope that all this thinking will somehow cut through the entrenched stupidity and violence and make the world a better place. Hoffman, I believe, had the same feeling about his acting - that by showing us the workings of a character's mind, he could do what great novelists do, connecting with us on a level most actors never approach. And though he's gone, the bond he forges with us in "A Most Wanted Man" is indelible.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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