Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent as German intelligence agent Günther Bachmann in A Most Wanted Man. The movie is anachronistic – a throwback thriller with little interest in blowing things up; in tone and worldview, it recalls the nihilism of 70’s movies like The Conversation and All the President’s Men.
Hoffman’s control is incredible. While his German accent seems right to me, he doesn’t call attention to it. His character, Bachmann, is a mess – work is everything (he runs a counterterrorism unit), and he’s afraid to fail. He’s beset by rival groups that want a quick score at the expense of his careful setup. Those groups also lack Bachmann’s moral core. Hoffman makes us understand everything about the man not by what he does, but through how he is. He doesn’t move a lot – his intelligence and authority are conveyed economically, in the tilt of his head, the spark in his eye. There’s a moment late in the film where Hoffman explodes. If a surface actor like Tom Cruise had played the scene, it wouldn’t register (we’d know the gun was coming out next.) As Hoffman performs it, he breaks our hearts.
Director Anton Corbijn is mostly unobtrusive, allowing scenes to unfold and breathe. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography complements the story’s themes – light is never warm, and darkness always threatens. A Most Wanted Man might wipe you out, but it offers the distinct pleasure of watching a Good Man (and a great actor) doing something that matters, even if he knows the game is rigged. It has a rare nobility.