Movie Review: “A Most Wanted Man” (Anton Corbijn, USA/UK/Germany 2014)

At the same time that the seeming in-the-bag winner of the Best Actor Oscar for this year comes out in Get on Up (Tate Taylor, USA 2014), we have what seems equally a shoo-in for at least a nomination for supporting actor in A Most Wanted Man. Chadwick Boseman has enormous goodwill around him and AMPAS loves musician biopics, so if he acquits himself reasonably well (which is likely, because he is a talented actor), they will bend over backwards to give him the award. Meanwhile, the posthumous nomination for a respected actor who wasn’t a major star has a long and storied history, and A Most Wanted Man stars one of the most respected actors of the last decade in Philip Seymour Hoffman, who famously died six months ago. I’m not terribly interested in Get on Up, because all musician biopics are the same movie, but A Most Wanted Man was getting excellent reviews and sounded like it had some interesting possibilities, so I thought I would try it.

A Most Wanted Man is an adaptation of a John Le Carre novel, which tells you much of what to expect–a nigh-impenetrable spy thriller in a deep world of intrigue where loyalty and trust are hard-fought and easily lost. His works have made for difficult transitions to film. His intricately detailed plots have to be cut to fit in a film’s length, which renders them either facile or, more often, confusing. His deep lead characters become difficult to explain as we are put in the position of trying to understand them the same way that others from whom they hide themselves are.

Unfortunately, A Most Wanted Man does not avoid any of those problems. The plot of the film is somewhere between confusing and incomprehensible, with motivations that are nearly impossible to discern, shifting loyalties whose importance and reasoning are unclear and characters who are nothing more than plot devices. It’s a film that relies on the tension inherent in its situation to carry it, when that tension isn’t really enough to hold it up. What’s amazing is that the reliance on that seeming tension and the confusion of the plot is that it renders a spy thriller one thing that a spy thriller absolutely should never be: boring.

All of that would be acceptable if the film were shirking the other elements in the service of a unifying point, of course. The problem is that this film really doesn’t have anything to say. It wants us to find out that Hamburg, Germany is this messy hive of terrorism and fear thereof and it plays around with the idea of loyalty, but it really doesn’t have anything to say about either.

So, we have a pointless film with a difficult plot and dull characters that’s also boring.

As cinematographer, Corbijn turned to Benoît Delhomme, and they provide an entirely conventional look for the film. It’s all the same cold blue that you expect from a spy thriller. It doesn’t have major lighting tricks. It doesn’t have much camera movement. It doesn’t use light and shadow interestingly. It’s just dull.

Now of course the part of this film that in theory should shine is the acting. The problem is that the dull characters kept everyone from being able to show anything. Really, the only person who stands out at all is Hoffman, and he stands out through incredible subtlety. When he chases Karpov and Richter through the streets, the way he doesn’t quite run but instead hurriedly, confidently walks behind them is a masterstroke. When he’s getting off the plane and adjusting his belt with the lack of self-consciousness that being noticeably overweight causes, it’s a moment of deep truth about his character that the film otherwise does not give us. No one really has much to do in the film, but Hoffman does a pretty amazing job with what little he gets. Everyone else is fine enough with almost nothing to do but doesn’t particularly stand out.

Overall, A Most Wanted Man is a fairly empty film. It doesn’t have anything to say, its plot and characters are flat and lifeless, and it’s boring as hell. Essentially the only thing in this film that really works is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, which is fantastic, nuanced, and subtle, but not really enough to make up for the rest of the film.

Notes

  • It was interesting to see the effects of 9/11 on a foreign city. I don’t know how much to trust this film’s portrayal (or even Le Carre, who has much more credibility).
  • “Tom Waits for what?” “His voice to improve.” I still think that and laugh every time I hear Tom Waits.
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