For more than half a century, John le Carré has reworked and perfected his depiction of one character: A middle-aged official, weary but dogged, pragmatic yet stubbornly idealistic, invisibly practicing spycraft. The best movie adaptations, from “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” in 1965 to “A Most Wanted Man” this week, show this character moving patiently and carefully toward a goal others may not allow him to reach.
You need patience to watch these movies, too. Not for Le Carré and his faithful adapters the “Bourne”-like bursts of action: Stories take place in a world of messages passed through cigarette packs, eavesdroppers listening to long and sometimes irrelevant conversations, taxi rides through grimy industrial landscapes.
In “Wanted Man,” those dreary streets belong to Hamburg, where Mohamed Atta lived while plotting the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. This tale begins seven years later, as Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role) painstakingly attempts to investigate another possible terrorist cell.
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He has an eye on Issa Karpov, a Chechnyan Muslim who confessed to terrorist activities under Russian torture. (Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin remains superbly inscrutable in the role.) An American spy chief (Robin Wright) thinks Karpov has come to Germany to blow people up. A human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) believes Karpov seeks asylum and wants to claim an inheritance from his father, a corrupt Russian general who died with 10 million euros in a German bank.
Bachmann doesn’t know. So he wants a suspicious banker (Willem Dafoe) to turn the money loose and see if Karpov gives it to a famous humanitarian (Homayoun Ershadi), who may be laundering contributions to terrorists through his foundation.
Le Carré published his novel during the last year of the Bush administration and did not disguise his contempt for American intelligence practices and results. Screenwriter Andrew Bovell makes everyone a potential threat to Bachmann’s deliberate endeavors: Not only the Americans but his own bosses demand quick results and would be satisfied with a low-level success. Bovell and director Anton Corbijn keep us guessing about motives, especially Karpov’s, until the last moments.
The film’s an international effort: Bovell comes from Australia, Corbijn grew up in Holland, and the cast comes from all over. German actors Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl, well-known in their own country, took small roles as Bachmann’s assistants. Hoffman, overlaying his normal voice with a slight German accent, fits right in.
If you considered him a great actor – I did, though not everyone agrees – you can’t help but wonder about the thin line between the glum, paunchy Bachmann and himself. The German agent stares at a dwindling bottle of alcohol through a haze of cigarette smoke, rousing himself once again to do battle with his own depression and the high expectations of others. Was Hoffman terrific in this part because he was playing it or living it? I can’t answer that question, but I’ll miss him.