There is a reason why when you’re watching a “Batman” movie, you never see him doing taxes. You never see the villain of a movie set up everything for his master plan; nor do you see do King Arthur having to use the bathroom before battle. Why? Simply because the narrative does not support trivial matters. Instead in the art of storytelling (especially in film), you can skip over these matters because they are not crucial information to the story you are trying to tell. This in part lies the problem in “A Most Wanted Man”, it’s too trivial on little things (establishing it’s appealing realism) while not focusing on bigger, more important matters. From a technical standpoint, “A Most Wanted Man” is superb; From a narrative standpoint “A Most Wanted Man” strays terribly awry with an admittedly complex but convoluted story.
When a half-Chechen, half-Russian, brutally tortured immigrant turns up in Hamburg’s Islamic community, wanting to claim his father’s ill-gotten fortune, both German and US intelligence race to investigate the matter in determining, is this man planning the next 9/11 in Germany?
Whenever there is a story of spies and espionage most audiences have come to expect bullet, guns, explosives, sexy girls, fast cars and fists flying. Films like the “Bourne” and the “James Bond” series have no doubt done that to us. Yet obviously real world espionage (in the modern age) is very much unlike a James Bond adventure. The real world espionage is a lot more slower paced, behind computer desks and opening a lot of folders and reading through the information. In this sense, “A Most Wanted Man” succeeds in creating a real feeling post 9/11 spy thriller. Yet the film falters in making an engaging story.
Real life isn’t always the most entertaining thing in the world. In the world of storytelling we can bend things to make the stories we’re telling more entertaining. Like I wrote over in my intro paragraph, we don’t need every little bit of information as an audience member to understand the story, and furthermore we don’t need every bit of little information to create a realistic feeling story. The film goes out its way to show all different angles on how the German intelligence tracked this one person to figure out if their target was a terrorist or not; by the way of them tracking through the bank, a charity, camera footage, long discussions with other intelligence officers. Ultimately the director forgets to make this is interesting and move the plot along.
Anyone who has read a few reviews from me in the past will know that I do slow paced movies. I believe some of the best horror films are the slower paced ones. Ones that take the time building up their characters and their plots so when the action explodes, it is that much better for the audience because now we have characters we care about and want them to be okay or at the very least or so invested in the characters that we want to know what happens to them. This is not something that just applies to horror, this can apply in many genres. Just in this past September, a little crime thriller called, “The Drop” (a film that is getting overlooked in this awards season) had a plot that took it’s time, creating a slow burn so the finale was a culmination of events that we as the audience were on the edge of our seat waiting to see the payoff.
“A Most Wanted Man” creates a slow pace in an attempt to do the same thing yet feels like this film is stuck in neutral the whole time. The story is sluggish, it doesn’t move anywhere, it doesn’t build properly (adding that the story forgets to be entertaining at the same time doesn’t help either). The characters always seem to in control of the situation which doesn’t create much compelling drama. There is a common theme of control presented throughout the film which all the characters seem to have. Perhaps it was done to make the ending more impactful (which I do admit, it’s a good ending) but it doesn’t make for good drama, which is something this film was in desperate need of.
Although perhaps this should be expected coming from Netherlands director Anton Corbijn, the man whom directed George Clooney in “The American” (a film famously criticized for how slow it moved). There is no doubt that slower moving films are his style (and might not be for everyone), but it’s hard to criticize the pretty picture he paints on screen. There is European sensibilities, capturing the beauty and grace of the land and city, while also hinting at the darkness underneath it. The cinematography is jaw droppingly gorgeous with each shot feeling like a work of art. Corbijn is not doubt a talented visual director.
A hard other thing to criticize is his ability to get performances out of his actors. Of the problems “The American” might have had, George Clooney was not one of them and the same is true here. The late great Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a riveting and memorable performance as Günther Bachmann, the man investigating the case. Robin Wright is terrific as always, and “A Most Wanted Man” also includes a surprising turn from William Defoe. Rachel McAdams feels a little out of her element and a bit of miscast here, but Corbijn makes this mistake almost work and gets McAdams all, in an actual solid performance.
“A Most Wanted Man” is no doubt thoughtful and has well intentions to create a more true to life spy thriller. Yet in trying so hard to create that feeling of reality, it forgot to add drama and spice to the mix to make the film at least interesting as it is beautiful. Phillip Seymour Hoffman shows once again why he will be missed around Hollywood in another terrific performance. If only the film around him could support him.