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Review: A Most Wanted Man (2014)

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

Premise: A Chechen Muslim suspected of being a terrorist illegally immigrates to Hamburg, Germany. A German counterterrorism group follows him in hope that the immigrant will lead them to a bigger target, but other agencies pressure for his immediate arrest.

What Works: One of the trends in post-9/11 moviemaking has been a rebirth of the spy film. For the most part this has occurred through gritty, technology heavy thrillers like The Bourne Identity and Casino Royale. These movies share the heritage of pre-9/11 spy films in that they deal with characters who have ambiguous agendas and feature corrupt government officials. More recent spy films utilize the themes and anxieties of contemporary life, usually dealing with Islamic based terrorist groups and focusing on the legal process of investigating and prosecuting terrorist plots. A Most Wanted Man features many of the conventions of the spy genre but the movie takes a different approach. For one, the film focuses on the actions of a small German antiterrorism group rather than America’s Central Intelligence Agency or a fictional subset of that organization. This is a story about a small, independent outfit and in the course of the story they are working with and sometimes against bigger players like the CIA. That casts their activities in a different light and gives the characters an underdog appeal. A Most Wanted Man also minimizes the use of technology. A lot of spy movies envision espionage operations being run from a hyperactive situation room by a staff that has god-like omnipotence through phones, cameras, and satellite feeds. In this film the characters engage in much more low tech detective work; technology figures into the story but the emphasis is placed on building relationships and manipulating people into situations in which they will give up useful information. These two qualities distinguish A Most Wanted Man and it tells a story about complex characters dealing with ambiguous situations. No one in the movie is entirely good but most of the central characters are trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances. That complexity allows the actors to give some nuanced performances. Grigoriy Dobrygin is cast as the terrorism suspect and Dobrygin plays a man who has been traumatized by war and attempts to make sense of it through his religion. This film also features one of the last performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the leader of the counterterrorism group and the role is a fitting send off for the actor. Hoffman did ambiguity and complexity very well and he was able to find empathy in difficult characters. He does that here and is at turns monstrous and sympathetic.

What Doesn’t: A Most Wanted Man is a story on a slow burn. Unlike popular stories of spies and counterterrorism like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, this isn’t a movie about chases and shootouts. A Most Wanted Man is a thriller rather than an action movie and it is closer to the pace and tone of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than the Jason Bourne series. That in itself isn’t a flaw; the cerebral qualities of the movie are mostly to its credit. However, A Most Wanted Man does require patience from the audience. In avoiding the clichés and glamor of Hollywood’s presentation of espionage, the filmmakers minimize some of the basic mechanics that usually make a movie like this enjoyable. In particular, A Most Wanted Man does not include a ticking-clock plot device, in which the main characters must execute their operation and apprehend the bad guy before something terrible happens. For most of its running time A Most Wanted Man lacks the pressure that creates dramatic urgency. The movie picks up in its last half hour and the final portion is sufficiently intense but the filmmakers take their time getting there. 

Bottom Line: A Most Wanted Man is one of the smartest and most nuanced films in the subgenre of terrorism thrillers. Although it isn’t much of a thrill ride its story is compelling and the movie features some terrific performances. 

Episode: #506 (August 31, 2014)