A Most Wanted Man

The venerable English spy-novelist John le Carré has been writing page-turners since the early 1960s, when the Cold War was giving people in le Carré’s profession ample material to work with. As the times have changed, le Carré has adapted his skills. The easily identifiable Soviets and East Germans of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” are gone now (even their countries are gone); modern espionage focuses on terrorist groups and religious extremists, most of whom aren’t affiliated with or backed by a government. Intelligence-gathering is more complicated now. But le Carré’s criticism of it — that the West’s tactics often go against our ideals — is as trenchant as ever, as we see in the film “A Most Wanted Man,” adapted from his 2008 novel.

The setting is Hamburg, a German port city that has been increasingly vigilant since the shameful revelation that it was home to several of the 9/11 masterminds. Now an anti-terrorist team, led by the boozy and disheveled Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), operates secretly to infiltrate and monitor potential terrorist cells. The latest object of Gunther’s interest is Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen immigrant who may have ties to militant groups and who’s staying with a Muslim family in Hamburg. The bosses at HQ, notably bean-counter Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), are impatient with Gunther’s wait-and-see tactics: they want to arrest Karpov immediately and find out what he knows. But Gunther wants to keep an eye on Karpov (who may not actually be guilty of anything) and see if he leads them to bigger fish.

Naturally, the American CIA also has its fingers in this pie, with a shrewd agent named Sullivan (Robin Wright) mostly taking Gunther’s side in terms of strategy. Gunther gets more help from a crusading human-rights attorney named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who has taken Karpov’s case in trying to claim an inheritance his father left him, and from a banker (Willem Dafoe) whose institution may (unwittingly?) be involved in laundering terrorist money. You can imagine the dim view that Mohr and his fellows take of Richter. (“Lawyer? F***ing social worker for terrorists.”)

Within this framework of surveillance and subterfuge unfolds a story, based loosely on real events, that simply wouldn’t have worked when le Carré started his career. It’s a decidedly 21st-century spy drama, with modern complications and nuances that weren’t factors half a century (or even 20 years) ago. All of it is directed with no-nonsense efficiency by Anton Corbijn, the Dutch filmmaker whose last picture, “The American” (starring George Clooney), was a similarly low-key tale of European espionage that traded in melancholia more than shoot-’em-ups. (An amusing coincidence: “The American’s” source material was a novel called “A Very Private Gentleman,” which makes it sound like a companion piece to “A Most Wanted Man.)

“A Most Wanted Man” has more in the way of traditional action than “The American” did, but there is something cold and clinical about it — as if Corbijn isn’t making a spy thriller so much as demonstrating HOW to make one. The film has an urgent tone, but the story itself lacks urgency, without clear objectives or a well-defined goal for us to pin our hopes on.

Nonetheless, there is the late, lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman in the central role, one of the last movies he finished before his death. Shaped like a lumpy blond potato and executing a flawless German accent, Hoffman immerses himself in the character the way he usually did, giving Gunther Bachmann a tragic streak of frustration and righteousness — a good, flawed man who’s caught up in a system where “good” and “bad” come in shades of gray. Bachmann’s railing against injustice reflects our own feelings, and as he comes to recognize the futility of it all, so, sadly, do we.

B (2 hrs., 1 min.; R, a lot of profanity.)

Originally published at About.com.