A Most Wanted Man is dense, grim, and set to be rooted in disappointment; it has a tortuous narrative line best understood in reference not to life, but to the preferred routines of espionage movies—John le Carré material, if you like, in which, gradually, the skull of misanthropy and betrayal will stare through the pulpy texture of inadequate lives. Going in to see the film on its first weekend, it was plain that no one in the story was “wanted,” except in the bleakest way. Instead, the audience’s desire was fixed on the lead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, wanting to make a tribute out of his last complete film. He is magnificent (of course—he usually was), but magnificence here has a disconcerting atmosphere. Is this great acting or his own despair? We can salute Hoffman, but don’t expect him to wave back or offer encouragement.
I won’t attempt to tell the story of the film. It’s far more instructive to say that Hoffman is pretending to be a German security man, the head of a small team that hopes to forestall plots like those of September 11. It is a given that this rueful mastermind, the one source of humane intelligence in the movie, will be confounded and destroyed. Against the grain of everything his character knows and attempts, he suspects this fate. He might guess that the appointed betrayer will be his most trusted aide, an attractive woman, Erna (played by Nina Hoss), who attends him like a wife or a mother. At the heart of the film is the way she looks at him: Fond, pained, and as aware of an inevitable ending as any nurse watching an invalid. His character, Gunther, mutters gruffly that she is his type. From time to time, as if in his sleep, he touches her, not with anything like hope, but simply to register that trust and company might have existed once upon a time.
Gunther is pledged to a theory that care, patience, and a faith in human nature may solve the struggle between Islamic terror and what we call our security people. (You will know them from their drained, haggard look.) Hoffman’s Gunther is a deeper wreck, already, dragging himself into the frame of his movie. He is more overweight than Hoffman had ever been. He smokes and drinks relentlessly. He is bereft of any thought of glamor, charm, or heroism. It is as if he is telling us, “You must not take me as a lead actor any more than Gunther can look at Erna with comfort or pleasure.” He is certain of what is coming and the certainty may be close to 300 pounds.
If you wish to preserve the decorous gap between an actor and his roles, you can tell yourself that this is simply Hoffman’s great skill in bringing Gunther to life, but then notice how Gunther conducts himself toward death. Was it by professional chance that the workaholic Hoffman found himself cast as so many suicidal characters, or was there a gravitational pull in his presence—the fatigue with which he lets his terrible stomach appear on screen, the fidelity with which his unsmiling hangdog air waits to be punished—that was insistent in film after film? Is that “casting,” or is it his depressed being taking charge of one project after another?
I don’t know what happened with Philip Seymour Hoffman personally and in the manner of his death. But I’m sure an actor is delivering his deepest beliefs in the way he releases every exhausted breath. A lot of the time, here, you can hear Hoffman breathing: That's fine sound, but it's his tenuous existence, too. He was caught up in an inescapable experiment with entropic energy—the opposite of vitality and something seldom allowed in movies. By contrast, in even Brando’s most tragic pictures, Last Tango in Paris, for instance, he had a remaining hope that still believed in the chance of sexual contact. But Gunther has given that up. Look at the tragic Erna and you know it. This is beyond plot or synopsis, and I don’t know how far it is Erna looking at Gunther or a German actress studying this wayward American master. But her dismay has appointed her to provide the coup de grace like a disillusioned matador dispatching the last bull.
The puzzle-like premise of A Most Wanted Man is a fabrication, but you cannot escape the fascination of Hoffman waiting for despair to be confirmed. Our movies are not normally like this; I’m not sure they should be. But Hoffman was hardly fit for a normal movie, and he guesses that a part of his drive, the mania for working so much (63 credits by the age of 46), was to avoid facing the abyss. But sometimes he asks us, “How long can you honor my despair, before seeing the world will not be changed by motion pictures?”
It’s not simply that he was a rare actor. Without addressing it out loud, he challenged so many expectations about acting, including the thought that entertainment is meant to assist us through life. It doesn’t matter how Philip Seymour Hoffman died. If you want to credit accident, that’s up to you. It’s as relevant that every screen breath he took was weighted with defeat and being beyond attractiveness. Gunther talks wryly of making the world a marginally safer place, but he doesn’t persuade himself; the deceits of espionage and insecurity have stripped away any reliable safety. As a movie, A Most Wanted Man is expert yet specious, because it clings to that suspense of being “a thriller.” Just to look at Hoffman and inhabit his reluctant rhythms is to realize the thrill has vanished. His character and the actor cannot escape knowing he has been dead some time. I don’t think any actor ever stayed so determined or defiant.