Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man raises the question of how many cigarettes a spy can smoke and also how many drinks he can imbibe and still see straight. Spying is a form of perceiving and if your mind is clouded how are you supposed to pick up the clues you are looking for? Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt was plagued by the same problem of depicting a ponderous character carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. In Hannah Arendt the struggles of the title character, the author of the highly controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, were always depicted by shoving a cigarette in her mouth. The props, in this case the cigarette or bottle that is always being reached for, drown out the nuances of a character who sardonically describes his mission as making "the world a better place."
A Most Wanted Man is adapted from the John Le Carre novel and it's almost impossible to parse the numerous moral dilemmas that the movie poses amidst the fog of smoke. Suffice it to say that the conflict between fathers and sons, the murky line between victims and perpetrators and the question of means justifying ends all constitute the promising if unfulfilled palette of the film's concerns. And it's hard to tell whether to blame the novelist or the screenwriter (Andrew Bovell) for lines like this: "we are fighting the radical offcuts of a nation called Islam. You have crossed the line. You are on their side now." The Hamburg of the movie is a cesspool. Hoffman meets his informants in bars where the customers pass out on tables. But on the other hand it's as if ISIS had already taken over. Though the port is renowned for vice, there isn't a sign of sex anywhere. From the beginning one has the feeling that the director was trying to create a city of shadows in the way Carol Reed did with Vienna in The Third Man and there are moments when Hoffman's portrayal of overweight spymaster, Gunther, recalls Orson Welles's tormented Harry Lime. But the phony German accents that Hoffman, William Dafoe and Rachel McAdams all sport fracture the gloom.
This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to c contemporary politics, art and culture.