The 9/11 attacks were largely planned in the German port city of Hamburg. It was here that the terror cell led by Mohamed Atta first made contact with Al-Qaeda, in the late-'90s, from an apartment that was being monitored by both the CIA and German intelligence agencies.
We're reminded of these facts in the opening title cards of director Anton Corbijn's tense and paranoid espionage thriller A MOST WANTED MAN. Based on the 2008 John le Carré novel of the same name, the film is set in today's Hamburg, where past intelligence failures haunt the conscience of veteran anti-terror field agent Günther Bachmann.
Bachmann is played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles. Both the character and the actor have clearly been living hard. Pale and heavy, drink perpetually in hand, Bachmann moves with the slow, ponderous gravity of a rogue planet.
When a Chechen refugee named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in the city, Bachmann's antennae twitch. Karpov takes shelter in Hamburg's Muslim community and lays claim to an inheritance, worth 10 million Euros, at a bank run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe).
Other intriguing characters drop into the story: An Islamic philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) who may not be as philanthropic as he seems, an earnest civil rights attorney (Rachel McAdams) who takes up Issa's cause and a suspiciously helpful CIA agent (Robin Wright).
Corbijn (director of The American) manages the twists and turns with casual storytelling confidence. In a cerebral spy thriller, the trick is to maintain suspense with disciplined disclosure of information. Scenes are carefully assembled and sequenced to provide the audience with what it needs to know—and nothing more.
Tension is generated not with gun fights or chase scenes, but with anxious rendezvous in bleak locales—a dilapidated river ferry, a basement pub. Well, there's one chase scene through a strobe-lit disco, which is apparently de rigueur in European thrillers. But if I remember correctly, there are no guns fired in the entire movie.
You need heavyweight performers to pull this off, and that's what we get with Hoffman, Dobrygin, Dafoe and especially Wright, who projects lethal iciness beneath her calm professionalism (and alarming haircut). We also get some intriguing specifics on the actual process of international money laundering.
The script has some structural problems, though. Because the players keep their cards concealed for so long, the movie has no active villain for most of its running time. It's often unclear why Bachmann is pursuing his investigation. When the double-crosses do land, the impact is blunted by lingering ambiguities, both moral and narrative.
It's hard to get more specific without spoiling things, but le Carré's source novel was built around a very specific critique, which is almost entirely absent here. And if you see the film, which I recommend, ask yourself this: Wouldn't a bogus check have solved everything in 10 minutes?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dirty laundry."