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Despite Hoffman, 'Most Wanted' Would Have Benefited From More Time On The Vine

Kerry Brown
Roadside Attractions
Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'A Most Wanted Man.'

Even a few moments into Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, it’s obvious how great a loss came with actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. He’s an actor of astonishing, deft power. I don’t know just what he does, but his physical presence – all that sloppy, unshaven grubbiness – demands that you watch, and his person and his characters become fused.

In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a man in charge of a special detail in German intelligence. His great talent is the ability to be patient and to watch – and Hoffman’s heavy-lidded eyes take in everything around him. His gestures are spare and timed exceptionally well – down to the drags he takes on his constant cigarettes and his occasional swigs from a flask. The raspy, deliberate voice does the rest.

In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman is also much better than the film.

The trade papers that cover the movie business have reported in recent years that the companies that produce mainstream films have cut back on pay for screenwriters. Writers get less money and also get fewer chances to re-work and polish their scripts. Screenplays don’t just appear fully formed from the brows of writers; scripts take draft after draft before they’re ready. It takes time and re-working for writers to find the heart of their stories and uncover the material that matters. The good writers will tell you that a script is finished when it’s finished and not before.

A Most Wanted Man doesn’t seem finished.

The film is taken from the novel by John Le Carré. The immediate story, in the film, is that Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), the son of a Chechen terrorist, has found his way to the German city of Hamburg. He himself is an innocent young man; he’s been tortured in Russia and now he wants to claim his father’s significant bank account and give the money away. German intelligence is trying to figure all this out. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann wants to wait and watch because he believes that the man who will disperse these monies will lead officials to important figures in al-Qaida. But Bachmann has a nemesis in German intelligence who wants to grab that man and not wait for something bigger to develop.

Credit Kerry Brown / Roadside Attractions
Roadside Attractions
From left to right: Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Grigoriy Dobrygin in 'A Most Wanted Man.'

So the story works on the struggle between agents who look toward long-term, deeper interests and agents who want the quicker success of getting the small fry. And there’s an American CIA agent looking on (Robin Wright, looking like she just walked over from the set of House of Cards).

But the movie doesn’t open up this side of the story. The film just drops it into the action, so when the flurry of activity comes at the end, you’re left with questions of the kind that you shouldn’t have to ask, if the picture had done its work in the first place – logical questions like why didn’t smart people know that such and such was happening.

A Most Wanted Man swaps confusion for drama, which is a poor trade. But that’s become typical. Movies try to convince the audience that uncertainty equals depth, and it doesn’t. And confusion is not the same thing as ambiguity – it’s just confusion.

A Most Wanted Man has a good start. The picture feels tight; scenes move things along, and individual shots feel important – you’re taking in sights that matter. But then the bottom falls out, and the movie loses its way. Suddenly there’s too much talk that seems as if the writers are still finding their way through the story, and they haven’t yet completely found it or its structure, or located what’s primary and what’s secondary.

The movie’s like a tomato that you watch growing in your garden. You want it so badly that you pluck it too soon, and what you get is a tomato that’s OK, but if you’d let it ripen another two days, it would have become a terrific tomato.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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