“A Most Wanted Man” is not a guns-and-motorcycles spy story but a shadowy walk down a dark alley. It’s a John Le Carré espionage procedural set in a world of cynical realism and moral ambiguity. The locale is not a glittering world capital but Hamburg, Germany. The port city’s Islamic community is home to both oppressed victims and violent extremists; it was there that an Al-Qaida cell planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The German spy apparatus is focused on the Muslim community’s activities with a combination of prudence, scapegoating and xenophobia, and sometimes illegal means. It’s prepared to kidnap suspects off the street and hold them without charge. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a midlevel spy master who complains, “German intelligence needs a job to be done that German law won’t let it do.” It’s his job to break the law for what may — or may not — be the greater good.
The title character is Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Chechin/Russian Muslim who has shown up in Germany. He may — or may not — represent another grave threat to the West. Bearing marks of imprisonment and mental instability, he inspires pity in German immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). She acts to help the illegal immigrant stay in Germany and to receive the money that his father, a Red Army colonel, left him in a secret account. Issa wants to transfer his father’s bequest, which he considers unclean money, to various Islamic charities through Dr. Faisil Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a respected philanthropist with suspect connections.
The film keeps Issa a blank on which we can project sympathy or fear. When he clasps his lawyer’s hand in a gesture of compassion, we feel for him. When we observe him amusing himself by tossing a paper airplane, we feel a chill as we think of other airplanes. While Bachmann works to get the goods on the Muslims, local CIA spy chief Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) monitors his spy operation. She may — or may not — be a trustworthy ally. The film’s tangled intrigues encourage us to experience firsthand the introspective angst of Le Carré’s prose.
The film showcases one of Hoffman’s final performances but, it must be said, not his all-time best. He’s comfortable in the role of a rumpled, inscrutable obsessive whose shabby appearance conceals a cunning mind. It’s tough to invest one’s emotions in such a closed-off spook.
He and Wright do share a wonderful scene, however. In a seedy bar they debate the utility of deposing a despot if that creates a vacuum to be filled by who knows what. Right then a fight flares up on the dance floor between a drunk and his equally tipsy date. Hoffman moves in to break up the disturbance only to be swatted away by both parties. He returns to his table with a look of annoyance, as the spatting couple fall into a boozy mutual embrace. It’s a witty demonstration of the futility of getting entangled in other people’s fights, be they personal or ethno-religio-political.