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Sundance 2014 Review: ‘A Most Wanted Man’ Takes the Long Way Around

By  · Published on January 19th, 2014

The 9/11 attacks were planned from the beautiful, immigrant-friendly city of Hamburg, and Germany swore afterwards that it would never happen again. In addition to tightening security for those coming into the country, part of their efforts to stop terrorist cells from operating so freely within their borders included the creation of a small intelligence unit whose sole purpose is prevention.

Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads up the team (which also includes Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss), but his latest mission challenges more than his skill-set and determination. It shakes his drive, moral compass, and dedication to “making the world a safer place.”

A Most Wanted Man is exactly what you’d expect from the director of The American, and while that assessment will mean different things to different people the film remains a meticulously crafted adaptation of John le Carre’s bestselling novel.

Bachmann’s team catches wind that a possible Muslim extremist has snuck into the city, so they set in motion a mission to locate, track, and if necessary turn him to their own advantage. Issa Karpov’s (Grigoriy Dobrygin) past crimes have shown him to be a man who follows orders, so the ultimate goal is to use him to find and take down the terror cell leaders. Specifically, Bachmann is after the man funding recent and future attacks.

The film follows the team’s detailed efforts and frequently makes room for new players to weave their way in and out of the central story. Motivations are illusory as characters act out of loyalty to the flag or to their heart, but rarely to both.

Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) is a human rights lawyer who falls in with Karpov after hearing his story of torture at the hands of Russian authorities. It’s the reason he needs asylum in Germany, and she dedicates herself to his safety. American Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), by contrast, is a bit less concerned with the man’s rights. She’s C.I.A., and Bachmann’s past experiences with the spooks haven’t had the best outcomes. Finally, Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) is the head of a very selective bank which happens to be holding money for the suspected terrorist.

There is quite a bit happening here, all in service of an ultimately fairly simple story, but while that alone wouldn’t be a problem the collective weight of it all just feels unnecessary. The takeaway at the end lacks anything resembling a lasting impact. Nothing to discuss, debate, or mull over once the credits have rolled. It simply is, and for material this dense and a runtime over two hours it only barely feels worth it.

This is not to imply the film is dull as it most certainly is not. The ensemble cast are all on top of their game, and Hoffman is their most valuable player. Bachmann is growing weary, and Hoffman wears it on his face and in his heavy breathing. He hustles from one surreptitious meeting to the next, moving from small victories and bigger defeats, and we see the toll knocking away at his enthusiasm for the job.

A Most Wanted Man has things to say about the world of spies, the actions of certain government agencies, and the very human toll the war on terror has wrought, but it’s not making its case in the most effective manner. There are moments of brilliance and devastation here, but they’re too few and far between.

The Upside: Strong acting across the board; intelligent, adult thrills

The Downside: Punctuations of action/intensity are even less frequent than in The American; third act slows with chatter when it should be increasing tension and expectation; heavy in content but lightweight in lasting impression

On the Side: This is the first of two John le Carré adaptations due in theaters this year. The second is Our Kind of Traitor.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.