By Daniel Barnes
When Philip Seymour Hoffman died from a drug overdose last February at the age of 46, we lost not only an immensely talented and diverse actor, but also the cinema’s preeminent portrayer of sweaty men in dirty white t-shirts. In a medium that glamorizes everything it touches, Hoffman led the resistance. He was diverse enough to make movie magic work for him when the role required it, as with his celebrated performances in Capote and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but his best and most iconic work gets at something more humble and imperfect, more honest, more human.
I keep coming back to that dirty white undershirt – stretched at the neck, weeks without a wash, perhaps a little frayed around the collar. Hoffman’s characters seem to spend a lot of time in such uncomely undergarments, and early in Anton Corbijn’s lifeless spy yawn A Most Wanted Man, we can see a rumpled and ill-fitting white t-shirt peeking out from under the collar of counterterrorism expert Gunther Bachmann. It instantly identifies Gunther, who runs an extralegal shadow organization built on treachery and intimidation, as one of Hoffman’s classic morally compromised schlubs.
Not only is Gunther a chain-smoking slob, he doesn’t seem to have any kind of personal life, and for all of his strength and capability, he goes about his work with the disdain and mistrust of the defeated. He is still stinging from a previous mission that was compromised by outside interference, leaving several undercover operatives exposed, and he is reluctant to share information.
Gunther is based in Hamburg, where he entraps and entices people to conspire against their own kind, moving further up the terrorism food chain until he can capture the biggest targets. The film follows two threads that slowly (and I mean slowly!) intersect – an immigrant from Chechnya who has snuck into Berlin to claim his inheritance, and the big fish “philanthropist” who Gunther believes is using Muslim charities as terrorist fronts.
If not for Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man would be utterly skip-able. Best known as a music video director, Corbijn’s last film was The American, a hitman movie so steadfastly devoid of incident that it basically amounted to George Clooney ordering coffee for two hours. Along with screenwriter Andrew Bovell, Corbijn here adapts the work of venerated spy novelist John Le Carre, already a source often prone to inspire dry and airless films. In Corbijn’s hands, the spider web of double-crosses, triple-crosses, and just plain old crosses that make up A Most Wanted Man evaporate upon impact.
Hoffman manages to single-handedly ground the film in the world of thoughts and feelings, but the rest of the cast is swallowed in the disaffected dreariness. Rachel McAdams particularly struggles with in the under-realized role of a British lawyer who becomes a pawn for Gunther. Willem Dafoe doesn’t fare better, doing a lot of stock grimacing as a banker caught in the middle. Robin Wright plays an American spy softly pressing Gunther for access, and although she has good chemistry with Hoffman, their scenes together are still pretty flat.
It is nice that Hoffman, an actor often remembered for his larger-than-life performances, went out with this measured and understated turn (albeit one that makes room for a climactic Hoffman freakout), even if the film ultimately proves unworthy of his gifts.