Though it maintained the scrupulous formalism of his stylish, thoughtful Ian Curtis biopic, Control, Anton Corbijn's The American was nonetheless a bit of a disappointment, a chic spy thriller that otherwise felt fossilized. That film's portrait of the emptiness of secret-agent life, conveyed by snipping off all but the essential narrative elements, gets flipped in A Most Wanted Man, a dense, elaborate potboiler which plays off the prismatic confusion of contemporary international intrigue. This depth owes a lot to John Le Carré, the longtime master of cloak-and-dagger ennui, whose eponymous 2008 novel provides the film's foundation. The density of the source material provides ample substance for Corbijn, who constructs a stifling world of shadowy surveillance and intersecting national interests, building on the sense of moral and emotional exhaustion familiar from previous Le Carré adaptations.
Set in modern Hamburg, the rollicking plot kicks off with the arrival of Issa Karpov, who slips off a cargo ship and into the Elbe, crawling up on shore like a soaked rat. Revealed as the illegitimate son of a powerful Russian general, Karpov has responded to his father's rape of his Chechen mother, and the broader exploitation of his homeland, by engaging in resistance fighting and radical Islam, resulting in torture by government officials and a stint in a Turkish prison. Despite initial fears that the newly free Karpov is in Hamburg to commit some act of terrorism, the titular character seems mostly concerned with putting his past behind him, equally burdened by his violent history and his father's evil deeds, symbolized by millions of dollars held in a German bank account.
This makes him the perfect target for the film's clandestine, extralegal undercover agency, led by truculent spymaster Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Even further off the grid than Le Carré's usual stable of British operators, Bachmann's unit works to transform the wanted Karpov into a useful pawn, all while feuding with other intelligence groups, ranging from mainline German authorities to visiting CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), who may be a friend or a foe. Bachmann's struggle to pull off a sophisticated surreptitious scheme at times recalls the internal mechanics of The Wire (meticulous on-the-ground police work matched against flashy but ineffectual showpiece operations), with both alternatives feeding into a larger evocation of post-9/11 weariness. Using one incriminated character to flip another, Bachmann's plan details an unfolding continuum of shame, in which everyone seems guilty of something, with the all-seeing mechanics of the state intent on making them pay for those crimes, embroiling crooked bankers, naïve human rights lawyers, and complicated criminals in its wide web, aimed at achieving some hazy dream of security.
The film's astute approach to such complex material is enticing, yet for all of Corbijn's directorial panache, A Most Wanted Man at times feels like yet another warmed-over Cold War tragedy, with a vaporously vague conflict poisoning all its principals, leaving everything shrouded in confusion. Fixated on the emotional toll of serving as a cog in a surveillance state, the film ends up affecting a borderline fetishization of these obscure observers, confirming the sense of Le Carré's doom-tinged stories as modern-day fantasies, standing opposite to the unflappable ebullience of the James Bond series. While those books and movies carry on a fantastical myth of British superiority, simplifying convoluted national politics and post-colonial kerfuffles into heroic romances, Le Carré's stories tap into a different sort of romance, playing up the dolorous dark side of British defeatism, in which the constant policing of the world does nothing to temper its tendency toward chaos. The trauma of 9/11 and the disastrous wars which followed have increased the relevance of this myth, expanding the symbolic significance of cinematic worlds defined by the creeping damage of behind-the-scenes struggles, in which dueling secret agencies carry out increasingly ambiguous updates of the standard Cold War conflicts, vying for their own individual visions of a safer world.
The film never gets totally beyond this familiar treatment of spy tropes, but it remains a riveting, handsomely crafted bit of pulp, a comparatively realist companion to the Bourne movies, for those viewers who prefer their intrigue free from flying fists and overwrought conspiracies. And while it's unfortunate to see Hoffmann's final leading role defined by such a stodgy bundle of tics, all united under a baffling quasi-Teutonic accent, the performance has its moments, peaking when two hours worth of pent-up frustration finally explode. It's ultimately an impressive turn, always keeping in mind that Le Carré characters are less full-fledged human beings than living chess pieces, sacrificing any trace of individual identity to pursue some indistinct greater good. This is heroism at its most conflicted, and the embattled operators here stand as heirs to Graham Greene's embittered civil servants, whose internal decay illustrated a dark inverse to the bounty of empire. That empire has now crumbled, devolving into a shattered series of grudges and reprisals, and these servants of the state have it even worse, overwhelmed by the impossible intricacy of trying to maintain order, a complex situation around which the film adroitly maneuvers.