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Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is only a middleman in Germany’s international spy scene in A Most Wanted Man. With bureaucrats breathing down his neck and Muslim informants hanging on every word, his loyalties as part of an anti-terror unit are complicated. Those familiar with Cold War tales like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will recognize novelist John le Carré’s complex, character-driven storytelling here, albeit with a post-9/11 plot.
When Issa, a radical Muslim from Chechnya, shows up in Hamburg, he attempts to acquire a large stash of his father’s money from a German bank. The best way to ferret out Issa’s plans, Bachmann argues, is to let Issa move freely—and with a nod from the American in charge, Bachmann gets his way. Yet his plan is complicated by Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a liberal lawyer, who believes Issa is a changed man. Bachmann uses his wits to stay one step ahead of her, and he eventually plays hardball to win her reluctant help. Soon, along with Issa’s banker (Willem Dafoe), Issa becomes bait for a much more dangerous terrorist financier.
Le Carré is known for morally ambiguous tales, and this R-rated film is no exception. One graphic scene of a brothel and about a dozen uses of foul language contribute to its urban realism. Also disturbing are Issa’s physical and emotional scars, as well as the treachery inherent in Bachmann’s job. And for all its sophistication, the movie’s surprise ending reflects a pre-ISIS naiveté about American involvement in foreign affairs.
Still, this isn’t typical liberal sophistry either. Muslim terrorists exist in this movie, and they pose a real threat to the Western way of life. And in this last film before a fatal drug overdose, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the real star. A Most Wanted Man pulls the frame tight around him—anyman and everyman—as he tries to keep his promises in a brutal, jaded game.