When artists die young, their legend often grows disproportionately to their record of accomplishments. When James Dean passed away after making just three films, he was posthumously anointed as one of the greatest actors of his generation, a claim based mostly on his promise. Maybe he would have become Marlon Brando, or maybe not. In our struggle to make sense of our own mortality, we find tragedy more palatable than uncertainty. In this way, death creates limitless potential.
A good portion of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s potential had already been tapped when he died at 46 earlier this year. If there were an Actors’ Hall of Fame, they could have begun measuring him for a bust there somewhere around Capote. Still, there was reason to believe he had room to grow. After all, arguably his best performance came just two years ago when he played cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master.
As such, there is a lot of baggage surrounding A Most Wanted Man. It is Hoffman’s last starring role, so his fans will come to the theater with competing instincts: there is plenty of goodwill out there, fueled by our persistent urge to see all things end on a high note, but there is also the danger of unreasonable expectations.
After all, Hoffman did not know this would be his last role, and Health Ledger raised the bar on posthumous performances to an impossibly high level with his Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight.
Hoffman will not win awards for his performance in A Most Wanted Man, but it’s one of his best roles because of the way it engages with our perception of the actor. It is different than anything he has done before and, in this way, sadly reveals even more untapped potential than previously thought. As the weary, dogged Gunther Bachmann, Hoffman rejects his strengths as an actor – the propensity for emotional intensity, especially rage – and gives a performance that is, by his standards, nearly minimalist. It trains you to slow down, pay attention and revel in its subtleties until any grandiose notions surrounding Hoffman’s “last great performance” are rendered insignificant. This is simply the result of a committed artist continuing to challenge himself to grow, and it hints at a brilliant third act to his career that we will never see.
Bachmann is the film’s protagonist but not necessarily its hero. A middle-aged career spy with a clandestine agency whose charge is to monitor terrorist threats in Hamburg, he operates in a moral gray area. The plot kicks into action when he takes note of a mysterious Chechen who arrives in town and makes contact with a suspected terrorist. Bachmann does not want to capture him. He wants to use him to create a chain of informants – “You need a minnow to catch a barracuda,” he intones. To do so, he must keep the CIA and another German intelligence agency at bay, while bringing a banker of dubious morals (Willem Defoe) and a do-gooder lawyer (Rachel McAdams) into the fold. It is a plan with many moving parts, and for most of the film, we hardly expect him to succeed. Hoffman’s hangdog look, lumbering form and low rumble of a voice are indicative of a man already defeated.
Of course, this is a perspective with which he was deeply familiar. Characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman do not win. He was often credited for his versatility, but the most recognizable motif in his filmography was the dignity and humanity he gave to losers, outcasts, misfits and criminals. From Scottie in Boogie Nights to Willie Loman in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway, Hoffman’s career was defined by characters who are unsuccessful at life – and miserably unhappy for it. His roles in Owning Mahoney, Love Liza, Happiness, 25th Hour, Synecdoche, New York, and Jack Goes Boating shone a warm and forgiving light on those who tried to grasp happiness and failed. Even those characters who appeared confident and successful, such as Dodd in The Master or Dean Trumbull in Punch-Drunk Love, were always revealed to be frightened, cowardly men hiding behind false bravado. He even imbued his more successful characters, such as The Count in Pirate Radio or his Oscar-winning depiction of Truman Capote, with a strong sense of fading glory. These men had known darkness, and they knew there was more coming.
For much of A Most Wanted Man, Bachmann seems to be one of these classic Hoffman losers. He has little personal life, just a flirtatious relationship with a co-worker that might be more; we never find out because the movie doesn’t care. We are told that he botched his last assignment and has been sent to Hamburg as punishment. His latest case quickly becomes so complicated, it seems impossible to imagine that this unassuming, slovenly man would be able to navigate his way out of it, no matter how intelligent he is. The world that Hoffman has showed us throughout his career simply does not work that way.
And yet, in the film’s second half, that’s precisely what appears to be happening. It seems, once and for all, that Philip Seymour Hoffman might just win. His plan to entrap the suspected terrorist goes off mostly without a hitch. While this might be gratifying, it leaves you with an odd feeling that A Most Wanted Man is somehow a minor Hoffman work, a slight diversion or, worse yet, the beginning of a downward trend in his career (that we were mercifully spared) in which we he only wanted to play heroes. And you start thinking about The Hunger Games, and wondering if The Master was his career peak.
But Hoffman has one last surprise in store. You come to the film’s terrific ending, which I won’t spoil here, except to say that it reframes all that has come before and shows you how Bachmann is a classic Hoffman creation. The reason this is Hoffman’s finest performance is that he managed to convince us for nearly two hours that it was something else, and the film’s last shot – of Hoffman getting out of his car and walking out of the frame – is as fitting a final image of Hoffman as I could imagine. As an actor, he was always moving forward, getting out of his comfort zone, and remaining just out of our grasp.