A pattern is emerging in the legendary Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances. They are frustrated, tragic, desperate and down-on-their-luck figures, with stories so sad, living miserable lives with terrible things happening to them, that by having a man who did struggle play them, it feels so eerily aligned.
Like Hoffman’s performance of Gunther, A Most Wanted Man is filled with a tired heaviness that is only elevated by the tragedy that surrounds it.
In A Most Wanted Man, Hamburg is worn out, weighed down with the guilt of having one of the most world-changing tragedies in history planned there without government knowledge. It’s icy cold and uninviting, an old city that hasn’t been updated and feels stuck in a time warp of the 1980s, stuck in a deep funk of desperate regret.
Like The American, Anton Corbijn’s previous film, A Most Wanted Man is not the fast-paced, punchy spy thriller that the trailer promises. It’s not purely an espionage, mile-a-minute movie, instead it goes deeply beyond the simple story of terrorists.
Instead, A Most Wanted Man tells a story of not only the war on terror, but also the war between the old and new world, and how fast the new world moves and seeks the quick, immediate, patch fix that is sure to become unstuck later. A proper solution takes careful, lengthy thought and execution.
This interpretation may seem a bit on-the-nose, but it’s like Corbijin’s direction and Bovell’s script. Their methods are too slow and laborious for some, they want their entertainment, their tension, their climax, to be fast-and-loose, taking longer to unravel than it does to build. But others value the slowness, the pot-belly boiling, slow burn that keeps the tension simmering until the last minute, thriving on creating a sense of foreboding that the old world of Hamburg is about to be attacked and nannied, even though not a great deal is explicitly happening to suggest that.
At the end of the day, A Most Wanted Man is a tale of two worlds, represented in not only the setting but also the characters. Hamburg and Gunther are the old world, not sensationalised, careful, accustomed to what they’re doing, acting like a quiet, agile, calculated creature that pounces on its prey at the most opportune moment. They’re a fish-out-of-water in the new world, having to unwillingly adapt, being pushed out from their tried and tested methods. Martha is east-coast of the US – velvet glove, hands-off, squeaky clean,can-do, glasshouse optimism. It’s words over actions – saying that they exist to saying and not doing, telling everyone they exist “to make the world a safer place”, when, in fact, it is more of an existence to please.
Corbijin and Bovell may favour the old world, but ultimately, the message of the film is that there’s no easy answer. Is it better to strike while the iron’s hot, bow to popular opinion and leap in at the earliest possible time? Or do we wait, collect information, and create alliances?
Overall, A Most Wanted Man is a fittingly sorrowful film, a eulogy for the old world and Hoffman, who plays a character that fittingly, bucks all the popular trends. The countdown until the final time we’ll see a new work from him continues.