As I waited for the theater lights to drift into darkness before the beginning of A Most Wanted Man--featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman's final leading performance--I thought about how much I would miss him. But in the first few minutes of the film, Hoffman, the actor, vanished. Instead, I was bracing against a chill from a Cold War spy (Hoffman), as he fiddled with a thermostat in a post-911 world. Not since 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy have we seen such a smart, crackerjack espionage thriller.
And that's the magic of Hoffman, the definitive chameleon of his generation, who disappeared so adeptly into performances in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Capote, Doubt and The Master.
Unfortunately Hoffman also disappeared into his own personal hell in February of this year, dying of a heroin/cocaine/amphetamine cocktail. For me, his absence triggered an uncomfortable mix of sadness and anger--I felt robbed of a gift that I still hadn't adequately valued, which is all the more reason to urge you to see Hoffman's masterful curtain call in A Most Wanted Man. (Prior to his death, Hoffman is said to have filmed some final supporting scenes for December's Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1 sequel, but A Most Wanted Man was his final, starring big screen performance).
With a note-perfect German accent, Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, an anxious and caffeinated but world-weary spy in Hamburg, Germany. Early in the film, we're reminded that Hamburg is where al-Qaida terrorists hatched the 9/11 assault on the United States. Hamburg was a "guilty city," wrote author John le Carre in 2008's A Most Wanted Man, the bestselling novel and source material for the film. (In a rare move for the author, le Carre is an executive producer of the movie adaptation.)
Le Carre's 21st century novels like The Constant Gardener and A Delicate Truth have shown particular contempt for United States' counter-intelligence methods: short gains and long sacrifices. Simply put, le Carre reminds us in many of his books that America--the CIA in particular--has chosen to arrest and prosecute small-time terrorists instead of being patient enough to trap a big-time mastermind.
"It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark," says Hoffman's Bachmann.
But it's difficult to tell who is the barracuda and who is a shark. Consider this hypothetical: If you knew that someone was going to build a bomb in the future, would you arrest the bomber today, would you wait to catch the person paying the bomber, or would you be patient enough to trap the mastermind pulling all the strings? Le Carre theorizes that the United States, in decisions that have been increasingly driven by elections, has been trigger happy and overly anxious to catch a minnow, convinced it's really a barracuda.
"I have worked with Americans before," Bachmann tells a slippery U.S. agent (a raven-haired Robin Wright, always wonderful). "It did not end well."
But the CIA operative, as well as British and German intelligence and a cadre of other spies, want a piece of Bachmann's action--a plan to entrap a corrupt German banker (think minnow), played by a fine Willem Dafoe; a Chechen refugee (barracuda) played in a star-making performance by Grigoriy Dobrygin; and a Muslim academic (shark), a puppetmaster played by Homayoun Ershadi who was so good in 2007's The Kite Runner.
But Bachmann has only 72 hours to pull off the entire chess match. And this is complex stuff. So, a word of movie-going caution: get up from your seat at your own peril. Miss a little and you'll miss a lot.
When Bachmann is confronted by the other "chess" players (spies and counterspies--we really can't tell if they're friend or foe), he is asked about his end-game:
"To make the world a safer place," Bachmann says with deadpan certainty. At first blush, the line is a throw-off, meant to dismiss the naïve and stupid. That is, until we begin to consider what goes on in the dark corners of the real world--things we don't want to think about too often.
As A Most Wanted Man came to an end (in a disturbing conclusion after a neatly paced two hours), I recognized that Hoffman's was one of the best performances of 2014. The theater lights bumped up again, and I again felt a wave of sadness. I missed Philip Seymour Hoffman even more.