DVD review: A Most Wanted Man

a-most-wanted-manIt’s been almost 50 years since a movie properly conveyed the brooding, sorrowful cynicism of John LeCarre’s tormented heroes. Richard Burton was the perfect, whiskey-marinated field man in “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” (1965). Now we have Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man,” made shortly before his untimely death. Like Burton’s Alec Leamas, Hamburg spy hunter Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) knows that his own government rivals are as willing to thwart him as the terrorists he tracks. Both Leamas and Bachmann know it’s a losing game, but something within — call it sense of duty, obsession, stubbornness or character — demands that they stay on mission. Think of British agent Jim Prideaux in LeCarre’s 1974 whodunit “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” — he remained on mission even after learning his cover had been blown and the scheme was collapsing.

We’re back in Germany, where LeCarre set many of his best stories. Bachmann is head of a government security agency whose mission is to ensure that Hamburg is never again the launch pad for a 9/11 attack by Islamist extremists.

Bachmann affirms another of LeCarre’s principals — that spies do not look or act like James Bond. Gunther is a chain-smoking boozer, a fat schlub. But he’s smart and instinctive. When a half-dead Chechen staggers into town, Bachmann sees trouble. And opportunity. Maybe this wild-eyed fellow will lead the agency to a terrorist cell.

Bachmann’s boss is uneasy about Gunther playing the long game. Why not scoop this guy up now? But an American CIA “observer” (Robin Wright) urges patience and Gunther goes on tailing his man while the CIA diva tails Gunther.

As was the case with “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold,” minor characters are caught in the middle, going to the wall while the strategists on the fifth floor lay traps for one another.

Just as Burton had great support from Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner, Hoffmann’s character is defined and drawn out by Wright; Rachel McAdams, playing a German human rights lawyer, Grigoriy Dobrygin as the Chechen with a big secret, and Willem Dafoe as a banker with a shady past.

This homage to LeCarre is a guaranteed feast for his fans.

Stephen Fay

Stephen Fay

Managing Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Fay, managing editor of The Ellsworth American since 1996, is a third-generation Californian. Starting out as a news reporter in 1974, he has been an editor since 1976, working in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont before settling in Ellsworth with his wife and two daughters. [email protected]

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