We don’t have enough good spy movies nowadays. You’d think that in the world we live in, we’d be able to make up strong spy stories and film them, but maybe that hits too close to home. Or maybe technology has advanced to a point where “spying,” as we’ve grown to know it, simply doesn’t exist in the form where it would make for compelling cinema. I don’t know. What I do know is that A Most Wanted Man is a good spy movie, and for that I am very grateful.
Our lead is Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a spy team that gets most of its intelligence from the local Muslim community. A man named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) enters Germany illegally, and Bachmann thinks he’s worth following. Issa winds up contacting a lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams), attempting to seek asylum, as well as collect money left by his father from a banker, Mr. Brue (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, a bigger plot is afoot, there are other parties involved, and it all gets thrilling and fascinating as we watch Bachmann try to make sure everything turns out for the best.
It’s enjoyable, it’s thrilling, it’s got spying, and … yeah, that’s about it. I could end the review here and we’d all be happy, right? I mean, there isn’t a lot to say about A Most Wanted Man. It’s pretty generic, outside of its location and its characters, so if you’ve seen one good spy movie before, you’ve more or less seen this one, and– Hey! Maybe that’s what killed off the spy movie. Regardless of quality, they can tend to feel similar and same-y, much like the word similar and the non-word same-y are basically the same.
For instance, despite the film being a thrilling puzzle, it never is as twisty or suspenseful as it should be, simply because a lot of the elements at play here aren’t as original as they should feel. It’s not even the film’s fault; the genre just doesn’t seem to lend itself to a lot of creativity. I’m sure this sort of statement lends itself to comments of “you need to see X, Y, and Z, because they’re totally different,” which is probably true, but I stick by my statement.
If you are jonesing for a spy movie, though, this one will satisfy all of your desires. It’s well-made, beautifully shot — it was filmed on location in Hamburg, and is dark and gorgeous as a result — and contains some (mostly) wonderful acting. As one of the last films of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career, it contains another stellar performance. He anchors the film in the lead role, and shows us perhaps one last time why he was one of the greatest actors of his generation.
The likes of Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright are also great. Rachel McAdams is fine outside of the German accent she puts on, which is inconsistent and distracting — I cannot speak to its authenticity. There are scenes containing both her and Hoffman, and the difference in quality — not just in the accents, mind, although that’s where it’s most noticeable — is easy to discern. Hoffman is just so good in the lead.
Despite the film being well-made and strong on a technical level, and even featuring strong performances and interesting characters, it left me feeling cold. Maybe it’s simply because of how it ended, but I feel like there’s more to it than that. Maybe the dark aesthetic got to me, or the business-talk that all of the characters constantly engage in wore me down, or … there’s something. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. Regardless, I found it hard to become emotionally invested in the story. I was interested, sure, but it was more of a fascination than a genuine care.
A Most Wanted Man is a solid spy thriller in an age where getting good spy movies is a rarity. It contains great work by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the leading role, it tells an interesting story that will keep you interested, and its on-location cinematography is often so gorgeous that you’ll actually notice how pretty it is. It’s not likely to capture your emotions, and it feels very similar to lots of other spy movies, but if you’re in need of a spy movie fix, this one will satisfy that craving.