Film review: A Most Wanted Man (2014)

I saw this film over the weekend. It is one of the final ones by Philip Seymour Hoffman and he gives a typically fine performance as the head of a small German counter-terrorism unit based in Hamburg that is keeping track of potential Islamic terror networks who might be using that city as a stage to launch operations. Hamburg is where Mohammed Atta plotted the 9/11 attacks and none of the German authorities want a similar plot to go undetected.

The film is based on a novel by John Le Carre, so you can be sure that this is no James Bond-style spy thriller. There are no interminably long and preposterous chases using multiple vehicles, no fights, no shootings, gratuitous violence and the other staples of such films. Nor does Hoffman, as the main spy, have the incredible intuition of Bond who can almost reflexively figure out what the baddies are doing. Instead it deals with the minutiae of spy work, the monitoring of people, the piecing together of information, and the endless bureaucratic wrangling by the various government agencies all seeking to get credit for foiling any plot and to avoid blame if things go wrong. Add to that the inevitable interference by the American spy agencies.

If that sounds boring, it is not. Le Carre’s books are deeply engrossing, dealing with subtleties and complexities of characters who are not cardboard stereotypes and this film captures that. It is not clear who is good and who is bad and what their real motivations are. Like in real life, people are a mix of qualities, often trying to figure out what to do best in a complicated situation, and sometimes compromising themselves in the process.

Watching Hoffman carried with it some sadness and a sense of loss that such a major talent died so young. Here’s the trailer.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I saw it a couple of months ago. Yes, a very engrossing film. Hoffman’s character reminded me so much of George Smiley -- tired to the bone, eyes wide open to the moral deficiencies of clandestine work, yet still trying mightily to not succumb to evil (at least not fully).
    PSH’s death was a great loss.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    one of my favourite TV mini-series is the 1979 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alec Guinness was a wonderful Smiley.

    Yes indeed. I have it on DVD. One thing I found out though, don’t watch the whole thing in one sitting. Since they necessarily had to abridge the book, the pacing and the reveal of whodunnit comes much too fast. Even though I knew who the baddie was already, it still helps to pretend to wallow in ignorance along with Smiley over a few days.

  3. aashiq says

    I saw this movie just yesterday…and agree heartily. It has the quality of subtlety and human character development that is really quite engrossing. “To make the world a safer place” sounds like a goal that can unite, but in real life it doesn’t quite work that way…and then you move on.

    Wonderful movie!

  4. Mano Singham says

    There is no question that the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guinness was terrific. Guinness is almost always terrific but that series also starred the superb Ian Richardson.

    I saw the 2011 film version with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth and it was nowhere close to the quality of the TV series.

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