As the line between television and film gets blurrier, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish exactly what makes something qualify to be a film at all. Particularly in the age of “Homeland” and “The Americans,” some may leave a slow-burning, understated spy caper like “A Most Wanted Man” wondering if it wouldn’t have been better served as a limited series on Netflix or HBO. And it will be a perfectly valid question. Based on the novel by John le Carré (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), the film is the new anti-thriller from director Anton Corbijn and centers on the war on terror in Germany via a tapestry of several characters, chiefly Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a grizzled counter-terrorist intelligence officer stationed in Hamburg after a previous fuck up in Beirut.
Gunther and his small covert crew of operatives are tasked with keeping tabs on Muslims in Germany after, as a title card informs us, one of the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks had been living there while they were being planned. Throughout the film we follow Gunther and his team as they clandestinely track Issa (Grigorly Dobrygin), a young Chechen Muslim recently illegally immigrated to Germany who they believe may have a menacing agenda. Issa, an ex-prisoner whose back bears the scars of some serious interrogation, wanders the streets with the requisite incognito terrorist-looking hoodie/beard combo until he is taken in by a sympathetic Muslim woman and her son.
While the camera tracks his every move, it’s unclear if he’s really up to anything sinister or just trying to avoid further persecution. A mysterious letter puts him in contact with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lefty lawyer for a human rights organization who takes him under her care and who also becomes the target for Gunther’s team. The plan is to use Issa as bait in order to ensnare larger targets but they risk losing the entire operation to worried Berlin bureaucrats and an impatient American government, led by Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), who want to step in.
Deeply weathered, Hoffman is in ultra-haggard mode here, swigging scotch and chain smoking cigarettes, but also quite a charming beast with a few moments that really bring the character to life. He’s also maybe the only American member of the cast who can pull off a somewhat credible German accent. (Things are not quite as successful for McAdams or Willem Dafoe, who plays a serpentine banker.)
Authenticity isn’t necessarily a key factor in the film’s enjoyment but without it, you are just a bit more aware that these actors are all just playing dress up as spies. Corbijn’s previous film, “The American,” was another genre reversal, sold as a hitman thriller, it was actually more of a '60s European arthouse film with long takes and an icy, contemplative mood. One might’ve expected a similar tone here but despite a measured pace and decided emphasis away from traditional thrills, tonally it still hews much closer to a Euro-“Homeland” than to “Blow-Up.” The problem isn’t quite that the film is short on thrills (there is a paucity; the first adrenaline racing sequences don’t arrive until about an hour in), it’s that it’s not quite a character piece either.
There are hints at deeper relationships between the characters, particularly between Hoffman and Nina Hoss (who plays his second-in-command, Erna Frey), but unfortunately we don’t get to see enough of it and emotionally the film’s chilly tone keeps us at a distance. Had "A Most Wanted Man" focused intently on the peculiar lives of this team of spies, it would’ve been easier to accept in place of your typical spy stuff. But with only two hours for everything to unfold (though it can feel longer), we are only allowed brief glimpses (even Daniel Brühl is reduced to basically playing wallpaper with headphones here).
Since the expectation has increasingly become that stories on the big-screen have to be big, it’s interesting to ponder where that leaves a film like this “A Most Wanted Man.” Like all of Corbijn’s work, it is incredibly handsomely produced—the cinematography by Benoit Delhomme (“Lawless,” “The Proposition”) is typically gorgeous—and it has the feel of a tense and moody European caper, but the whole thing feels a bit slight. Not as arty as “The American” or “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or as soapy and quickly paced as its small screen counterparts, “A Most Wanted Man” is left somewhere in the middle. The finale stings admirably but you can’t help but wonder what happens next week. [B-]