The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Parts 1 and 2 will be the final films of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but because the actor had not yet completed all his scenes when he died last February, filmmakers will likely employ small rewrites or digital trickery, or both, to finish the series. That leaves God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man as his last completed movies — and his final starring roles. And because the latter got the later premiere (by just two days, at Sundance Film Festival), it has the distinction of being Hoffman’s curtain call.
On screen, you can control your exits. Though that’s horribly untrue in life, Hoffman would probably be proud of his unexpected last bow. Directed by Anton Corbijn, who successfully helmed The American with George Clooney, and adapted from the novel by John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man is a smart, gripping thriller that carefully navigates its way through subtle twists and delicious ambiguity.
Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a German espionage agent at odds with his superiors and American counterpart Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) over how to track down a high-profile Muslim terrorist. In a post-9/11 environment, they want to hammer every threat into the ground, while Günther prefers to watch, wait and seek the cooperation of lesser offenders. His decidedly anti-Bush philosophy is to seek out a “minnow to catch a barracuda to catch a shark,” but that proves difficult, especially in Hamburg, where Mohammed Atta planned his evil.
Wright, channeling the charm and ruthlessness of her House of Cards character, is a fine foil to Hoffman. Willem Dafoe, as bank manager Tom Brue, who’s unwittingly caught in the middle of terrorist activities, also shines. Only Rachel McAdams, as human-rights lawyer Annabel Richter, seems miscast, a lightweight instead of the required rock. (Jessica Chastain must have been busy.) Her shortcomings are even more obvious when she’s up against Hoffman, who, though not given much to do dramatically, is riveting, even with a German accent, which the film employs instead of the German language itself.
Though Andrew Bovell’s slightly uneven screenplay gets bogged down in minor plot details, its intelligence and political savvy soar thanks to the source material, Hoffman’s presence and a shatteringly brilliant ending. In a world intent on winning the war on terror at all costs, A Most Wanted Man moves away from crime and punishment and toward the simple but seldom-asked question: “Why do we do what we do?”
On a deeper, unintended level, the film is a tribute to — and even a mirror for — Hoffman, who plays a character not unlike himself. As the story progresses, we’re never quite sure what kind of a guy his character is, but, as it turns out, he’s just like Hoffman: seriously flawed yet excellent at what he does and resistant to the mediocrity around him. And when everything unravels unexpectedly, suddenly and tragically, we see that the parallels with Hoffman’s death are difficult to ignore. This realization turns the movie into both a reminder of the actor’s immense talent and a haunting commentary that even great people can be undone by the world in which they immerse themselves.