Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Spy Undone

Do you know how in watching Capote you couldn’t help but be transported right into the writer’s psyche, just by listening to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman – in the turn that won him his Best Actor Oscar – channel the man?

In director Anton Corbijn’s (The American) adaptation of John le Carré’s post-9/11, Hamburg-set A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman employs this raspy grave voice to play his last completed role, Günther Bachmann, a beyond-covert-German intelligence officer seeking to methodically pull apart an international terrorist network.

It’s a solid choice that enhances a performance that is already, naturally, solid. The voice, so specific and unsustainable to us mere civilians, makes the guy. It helps Hoffman embody the world-weary, system-wary Bachmann (something happened during a prior-to-the-events-at-hand op in Beirut that left him...quite disillusioned in the only life he knows) with commanding subtlety.

As a result, his is a near-perfect performance in a rather imperfect/perfect movie.

Wait. What the heck does that mean?

It means that, for a spy movie, A Most Wanted Man ain’t nothing like we’re used to. Much like his American, this Corbijn joint is a quiet affair: a slow simmer.

No one brandishes a gun in anyone’s face. Everyones like, sooo super-eloquent and polite and soft-spoken. And the few chases that take place throughout the movie are downright civilized by comparison to any of the hella-intense ones on which Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, or Daniel Craig’s 007 have taken us lately....

It’s so...different, especially when you consider that this a movie with a plot involving the possibly nefarious intentions of a half-Chechen, half-Russian young man (newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin), freshly and illegally arrived in Germany looking to be able to stay (Rachel McAdams plays his human rights lawyer) and get his hands on his late father’s considerable and ill-gotten money (Willem Dafoe takes on the role of the banker in charge of safekeeping this inheritance). Initially, conventional thinking is Issa must be plotting something in light of his particular circumstances (he has an Arabic first name, a Russian last name, known past ties to jihadist cells, and a perceived thirst for revenge after a stint in a Russian prison).

Corbijn arrives at tense moments by other means – Hoffman only yells the end of the movie. The story positions Bachmann against others in German intelligence and an official representative (Robin Wright) of American interests less inclined to play the long game. Shortsightedly, they wanna pull the trigger on what they can see now, whereas Bachmann wants to make the world a safer place by using the minnow to catch the barracuda that will lead them to the shark.

Which renders this Most Wanted Man less sought after and more talked about, and the movie, in that context, is a win. This ones not about the bang-and-boom action of catching the bad guys but about the art and reason of going after them.

I will presume that that’s what le Carré’s wrote, which makes Corbijn the ideal guy to spin this yarn for the big screen. He’s way more concerned with the intimacy of it all and he’s aces at it.

Remember and know that, and you will enjoy this portrait Hoffman probably scratched the s--- out of his throat to help him paint.

My Rating ***


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