The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

A Most Wanted Man covers espionage for the modern age

By in Culture


Günther Bachmann is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role.

Reminiscent of old-school spy thrillers, A Most Wanted Man delivers a compelling and humanistic view of terrorism, espionage and bureaucratic power play. It is a tense, slow-burning watch that allows viewers to step behind the scenes and explore the inner-workings of the government on an international scale.

Based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name, A Most Wanted Man starts off with a shot of the waters of the Elbe river rushing against the cement banks of Hamburg, Germany while a text overlay explains how the Sept. 11 attacks were planned in that city. The muted colours and crystal clear view of sewage water certainly set the tone for the rest of the movie.

Günther Bachmann — played masterfully by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman — is a German agent that heads up an espionage group that operates off the books for the German government. Their objective is to gather intelligence from the Muslim community in Hamburg to find and stop the person that has been funnelling large amounts of money to al-Qaida. To do this they start tracking Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechnyan refugee that enters Hamburg illegally after escaping torture from Russian authorities.

The Russians label Issa as an extremely dangerous terrorist, one that Günther should be trying to stop from attacking Hamburg. But as we see him interacting with the players around him, there is a sense that not everything is clear-cut. Not once during the movie do we actually see Issa attempt any violence, acts of terror or even make eye contact with most of the characters. Rather, he says he wants to move to Germany to start a new life for himself away from the violence of his past.

The best thing about the film is that the audience is never sure which view of Issa is the correct one, or if there even is a correct view at all. In fact, there is no clear-cut good-guy or bad-guy as seen with most movies that deal with Islamist terrorism. Every player has their own motive and agenda that they’re trying to accomplish by screwing over everyone else.

Issa’s immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) is possibly one of the only characters with altruistic motives, but she unfortunately gets wrapped up in Günther’s game of intrigue. She initially gets in touch with Issa’s father’s banker, Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), to collect his inheritance from his late dictatorial father. What she doesn’t know is that Tommy is being blackmailed and influenced by Günther in order to leave Issa without money, resources or any type of help in Hamburg.

At its heart, A Most Wanted Man is a modern tale about terrorism and the complicated relationship between Muslim immigrants and the West in a post-9/11 society. At the end of the movie, you leave the theatre wondering if any terrorists have actually been caught, if the government has done any good or if the world is any better off.

A Most Wanted Man certainly shows the stark reality of the Western powers’ war on terror on the ground level — where it’s disenfranchised Muslims in poor and immigrant communities that are arrested — with or without cause. As a child of a Muslim immigrant family, I certainly left the movie wondering how different my family’s life and experiences would be if we tried to immigrate after 9/11, something I am sure is intentional on director Anton Corbjin’s part.

Hoffman’s character had very little dialogue compared to many other characters in the movie, but his gruff and sardonic words only accentuate his visible struggle to deal with the events of the film. While Günther truly believes his methods and actions are right — being a very “ends justify the means” kind of guy — the power struggles between different bureaucracies and having to deal with the consequences of other people’s mistakes certainly wear him down throughout the film.

A Most Wanted Man marks Hoffman’s final performance on film and while the viewer can certainly see something is physically not right with Hoffman, his intense performance really drives home the fact that a great actor has been lost from the silver screen.

Corbjin has a masterful hand when it comes to the direction of the film. The gorgeous architecture of Hamburg is nothing but a subtle backdrop to the human story being told in the city. Every shot focuses on the characters, their emotions and their struggles. Corbjin draws on traditional German culture and etiquette as he has the characters refer to each other using their last names — with the exception of Issa and Annabel, who have a complex relationship beyond being mere friends.

Though overly action-filled at certain times, the movie is certainly a slow burn. But if a classic humanistic spy thriller is what you’re looking for, A Most Wanted Man will definitely suit your taste.

Photo: Punk Toad/flickr

Latest from Culture

Go to Top