Intelligence is both the subject and the approach of Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man,” a meticulously plotted, steadily absorbing Hamburg-set drama that casts a cynical yet compassionate eye on the complexities of counterterrorist work in the post-9/11 era. Adopting the same cool, methodical approach that he did in his offbeat procedural “The American,” Corbijn succeeds here in large part because his attention to nuance and detail so fully complements that of the German operatives at the story’s core. Starring the Teuton-accented trio of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe, a risky casting decision that ultimately pays off, this decidedly low-pulse endeavor will put off viewers who like their spy thrillers with a bit more oomph, but should court plenty of intrigue among discerning arthouse-goers who see the name “John le Carre” and know what they’re in for.
The German port city of Hamburg was where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the Sept. 11 attacks, a fact that has kept intelligence operatives there on high alert more than a decade later. It’s against this tense backdrop of justified paranoia and lingering shame that rumpled, hard-drinking Gunter Bachmann (Hoffman) runs a secret anti-terrorism team seeking to develop sources within the Islamic community that will lead them to higher-profile suspects. It’s a risky task, requiring patience and sensitivity as well as a willingness to hold back and negotiate, and in this Bachmann finds himself continually at odds with paper-pushing Hamburg intelligence head Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who would rather arrest first and ask questions later.
The subject of their latest clash of wills is 26-year-old Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who turns up in Hamburg looking half dead. Having suffered torture and imprisonment in both his native countries, he takes shelter with a Muslim woman (Derya Alabora) and her son (Tamer Yigit), and quickly connects with Annabel Richter (McAdams), a passionate young human-rights attorney who agrees to help Karpov claim an inheritance worth tens of millions of Euros. Classified by authorities as an escaped militant jihadist, this disheveled man of mystery is of immense interest to Mohr, who wants him arrested before he can make contact with Islamic terrorist cells, but also to Bachmann, whose instinct is always to pause, look at the bigger picture and make the most strategic move.
To that end, Bachmann reaches out to both Richter and Tommy Brue (Dafoe), head of the bank that is holding the desired funds. Both of them will play key roles in Bachmann’s plan to lay a trap — not for Karpov, but for Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a respected Muslim academic and philanthropist whom the team has been tracking for months, and who is suspected of secretly backing terrorist activity by way of donations to a Cyprus-based shipping company. Bachmann is given 72 hours to pull it all together, thanks to some leverage provided by Martha Sullivan (a raven-haired Robin Wright), a slippery and formidable CIA agent who articulates, not without irony, the ostensible reason why she and Bachmann do what they do: “To make the world a safer place.”
All this has been significantly condensed and reshaped by Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell (“Lantana,” “Edge of Darkness”) from le Carre’s 2008 novel, but with a meticulousness in keeping with the author’s ruthlessly observant m.o. Directed by Corbijn in a suitably rougher, more workmanlike mode than either “The American” or his stylish black-and-white Ian Curtis biopic “Control,” “A Most Wanted Man” may lack the brooding atmospherics of Tomas Alfredson’s superb adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (which, like this film, credits le Carre as an exec producer). But the film remains entirely of a piece with the author’s universe in the way that it continually deglamorizes and demystifies the task of intelligence gathering, revealing it to be as taxing and thankless a job as any other, and one where the best and brightest are often beholden to the paper-pushing agendas of their so-called superiors.
In that respect, far from being merely a grab for a broader international audience, the casting of actors like Hoffman and McAdams (the German accents jar for about a minute before the actors vanish into their roles) subtly underscores the universality of this particular story. It may be set in Hamburg, but the themes it addresses — about legacies of failure and incompetence, and the difficulty of getting people to work together even for some elusive collective good — are applicable anywhere, not least in the world of post-9/11 American counterintelligence.
Up until its grimly compelling final stretch, when the pieces of Bachmann’s plan are finally aligned and set in motion, “A Most Wanted Man” is not an action movie in any conventional sense. Thinking and talking are its primary modes of action; the most startling thing we see is a character getting snatched and thrown into the back of a van. If there’s a thrill here, it’s not so much in the plot’s gradual accumulation of twists and turns, but rather in the way le Carre’s bleak, unyielding worldview seeps into your nervous system. Chilly as that sounds, Corbijn brings a sympathetic touch to even the seemingly least significant characters, and he proves especially sensitive to the ways in which all of them are wrestling with an inheritance of sorts — a literal one for Karpov and an emotional one for Richter, whose human-rights work reps a conscious attempt to reject her privileged upbringing.
First among equals in the fine ensemble, Hoffman brings a superbly world-weary quality to the role of Bachmann, whose subtle methods are predicated on a deep understanding of human complexity and the reality that no one is either fully good or fully evil — an insight that makes for good detective work, and good drama as well. Making perhaps the strongest impression among the German actors is the brilliant Nina Hoss (“Barbara”) as Bachmann’s trusted deputy, while Iranian thesp Ershadi (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Taste of Cherry”) brings a natural dignity and gravitas to the role of the targeted Dr. Abdullah.
The film was shot on location in Hamburg by Benoit Delhomme, whose crisp compositions are marred only by a sometimes overly wobbly camera, in a needless attempt to channel a sense of real-world anxiety. Herbert Groenemeyer’s score is subtly deployed in line with the tenor of the proceedings, but nonetheless keeps the picture pulsing along.