Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting career showed a remarkable arc. Famous first for playing misfits – culminating in his Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote in “Capote” – Hoffman, by his mid-40s, specialized in authority figures.
The actor who won sympathy as an insecure porn-set gofer in “Boogie Nights” later intrigued as a charismatic cult leader in “The Master” and the complex games keeper in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
He also commands as the head of a German anti-terror unit in “A Most Wanted Man.” Shot in 2012, the thriller based on a John le Carré novel is the final film Hoffman completed before he died in February, at 46, from a drug overdose. (Though he did not finish work on the final two “Hunger” films, due this November and next, the filmmakers have said they will use his footage).
Hoffman was an anomaly in his generation of American male stars committed to boyishness and/or alienation into their 40s. Johnny Depp struck gold playing oddballs and has kept at it; Hoffman struck out instead for meaty but less colorful roles, a Gene Hackman in a crowd of Jack Nicholsons.
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In “Wanted Man,” a smart, often tense look at the challenges of fighting terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a sloppily dressed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking spy-game veteran. Buying the disheveled Günther as a high-level spy requires an actor who can show steel beneath the mess, as Hoffman does.
Günther leads by example, working harder than anyone on staff. He supports his spy team but quietly intimidates civilians to get them to cooperate with investigations. He goes to the mat to defend his unit’s deliberate approach when other intelligence officials, on edge since Sept. 11, question it.
His unit clearly respects Günther. Especially a beautiful operative (a magnetic Nina Hoss) who is tough during interrogations but looks at Günther as if he hung the stars. He does not notice, because he’s too busy analyzing intelligence and smoking cigarettes.
Hoffman employs much actorly “business” here, lighting cigarettes to punctuate every heated conversation. He does it so often that the excess starts to tell its own story. Günther seems to desire, more than a nicotine fix, a literal smoke screen to keep doubters out and allow him to focus.
Günther and his crew keep close tabs on suspicious elements in Hamburg, one-time real-life home base to Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta. Surveillance footage reveals a new arrival to Hamburg: Issa (a haunted-looking Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Chechen identified by Interpol as an escaped military jihadist.
At the same time, the unit probes an academic (an inscrutable Homayoun Ershadi) who raises funds for Muslim charities. Günther suspects the academic might funnel some funds elsewhere.
Günther believes each man will lead to bigger fish. A local German intelligence honcho wants to hurry the investigation process, but a top CIA spy (Robin Wright) hears out Günther’s argument for the longer game.
Wright brings the same personable quality to the American spy that she gives Claire “Lady Macbeth” Underwood on “House of Cards.” So there’s no telling whether the American thinks Günther is a delight or an idiot.
Günther converses with Wright’s character and his fellow Germans in German-accented, subtitle-averting English. Director Anton Corbijn ( “The American”) establishes a firm sense of place despite this language conceit, which makes everyone sound like “Hogan’s Heroes” guards.
Shots of water, ships and docks evoke Hamburg’s history as port city and home to immigrants like the Turkish mother and son who take in Issa, a stranger in need. Yet the film’s muted, chilly palette underscores how wariness often displaces hospitality in post-Sept. 11 Europe.
Rachel McAdams brightens the otherwise ominous atmosphere as a German human rights lawyer. An optimist in this movie’s sea of cynics, the lawyer wants to help Issa, whose scarred back suggests prolonged torture by Russian security forces. McAdams and Dobrygin share a palpable sexual chemistry that enlivens the movie after it hits a slow patch.
The European setting and hand-held camera work evoke the “Bourne” films until no “Bourne”-style action materializes. Instead, characters talk and watch. Talking and watching can be tedious, no matter how much the camera shakes.
“Wanted Man,” like Günther’s investigations, is a waiting game. The film rewards viewer patience with a highly satisfying third act. As the story reaches its apex, it becomes clear how every piece of it – the talking and watching – has advanced the story. Like other spy thrillers, this film might take a few viewings to appreciate fully.
The joys of Hoffman’s performance are evident on first viewing. Especially in that climactic scene, which brings forth vulnerabilities Günther sublimated into cigarettes and work. This scene lets Hoffman hint at the sensitive-natured men of earlier in his career, thus highlighting his great range. It also allows the audience a moment to savor his talent before an awareness hits that we never will see its full extent.