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.