In Anton Corbijn’s debut film, the Ian Curtis/Joy Division biopic Control, there’s a particularly riveting sequence where the band performs the song Transmission on national television. There are two critical cuts in the scene, one at the start of the performance where friends and family are settling into their seats for the performance, and another at the end as the impact of the song settles in. The inhale/exhale editing pattern is repeatedly used throughout Corbijn’s sophomore film The American, and it is in A Most Wanted Man where Corbijn effectively persuades the audience and its characters to hold their breath for the duration of its runtime. The moment of release comes at the very end, where the film’s overwhelming frustration is compacted in a single line reading from Philip Seymour Hoffman - the actor’s swan song performance.
Whereas Corbijn’s The American was an exercise in stripped down narrative aesthetic, A Most Wanted Man is all narrative. This is attributed from the film’s source material, a John le Carré novel, whereby Corbijn services the heavy plotting of the script. Based on Corbijn’s previous two films, this is a significant departure for him; his directional presence as a visual stylist takes a backseat to the material and the towering performances of his actors. That’s not to say A Most Wanted Man isn’t visually adept - Corbijn’s Hamburg locations afford him to structure domineering shots of actors in conjunction with the intimidating architecture of the area. As preeminent as Hoffman may be in the film, he remains dwarfed by the modern architecture - a relic of the past overwhelmed by the nuance of the modern age.
Whereas the stuffy Cold War politics of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy proved unwelcoming (adapted from another le Carré novel), A Most Wanted Man’s contemporary trappings prove infinitely more compelling. The timeliness of the material sees a world on alert following 9/11, where Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) leads a group of self-sufficient spies in Hamburg following a botched assignment. While his stay in Hamburg may be considered a punishment, Bachmann maintains his dignity, determined to string together a series of clues regarding the faux-philanthropy of a prominent Muslim named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi). Meanwhile, a separate narrative unfolds involving a Russian/Chechen immigrant looking for asylum in Hamburg. The two narratives appear to unfold as separate entities until Bachmann’s persistence and penchant for manipulation unites them.
Much like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Wanted Man is a political procedural that unfolds in subtle gestures. But Corbijn is especially impressive in concentrating the material and exalting tension out of the mundane - the film’s climax sees an incredibly tense sequence involving, of all things, a signature. Like Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty, the characters in A Most Wanted Man don’t rest, they are perpetually alert, with Hoffman’s character chain smoking as if a coping device to stave off sleep.
A Most Wanted Man features Hoffman’s final performance and it fits the mold. It’s a performance stripped of any sense of glamour and it’s a character of dedicated ambition that doesn’t share the worldview of the people he surrounds himself by. The small gestures that Hoffman makes throughout the film are paramount to the delivery of his final line, in what can best be described as how one feels knowing that this is indeed Hoffman’s final performance.