Predator or prey?
An espionage thriller adapted from John Le Carré's 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man opens on a battered sea wall in Hamburg, Germany, a port city on high alert after Mohamed Atta and his co-conspirators plotted the Sept. 11 attacks there, undetected by German intelligence officers. A Chechen/Russian dual citizen named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) mounts the sea wall and is absorbed into Hamburg's Muslim community, setting off alarms for a team of off-the-books spies who've been tracking his movements.
Issa is the central dab of paint in a pointillist portrait of predators and prey: Take 10 steps back, cock your head to the left, and all the discrete strokes just might make sense in wide focus. As the group's poker-faced leader Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last film performances) observes, "It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, and a barracuda to catch a shark." Be they spies, bureaucrats or Islamic extremists, everybody has a place in the pecking order, but the filmmakers intentionally obscure who is nibbling at whose heels.
Director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) lurches between other points of interest, and other predators and prey played by an international cast. The apparently Herculean effort to sound authentically German leaches some liveliness from the Americans' performances. But Hoffman, his voice lowered and slowed to pin down that unruly accent, flips a seeming disadvantage on its head: Sudden movements and sardonic asides become more precious for their rare break from tight control.
Corbijn knows that the threat of violence can jangle the nerves more than onscreen brutality, and he favors smash cuts and hard hit-stops on transitional music to goose the mood into a grim anxiousness. The overcast look and drab locations do their part, too. A Most Wanted Man takes place in sterile offices, surveillance vans and secret interrogation rooms, places with few personal effects. It's a shock when, late in the film, we suddenly see Günther in his home, the wood-paneled bachelor pad of an underpaid, underappreciated spy operative. He sits at a modest upright piano to play a little, not all that well, but it's moving nonetheless. Hoffman's stubby, timid fingers give us a glimpse into the soul of an undemonstrative man.
Corbijn takes the sounds of Günther's piano into the next scene. A trap is set, and all the spy maneuverings come to a head. Forget divining who's predator and who's prey. Everybody's chum here.