(2014) Spy Thriller (Roadside Attractions) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Neil Malik Abdullah, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Rainer Bock, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit, Herbert Gronemeyer, Ursina Lardi Directed by Anton Corbijn
It is a tricky world out there, complicated and dangerous. These days, being a spy is a lot more than playing baccarat and sipping a superbly made martini and spies aren’t urbane, elegant men in formal wear. They’re more often than not rumpled, middle aged bureaucrat sorts who wouldn’t make an impression on anyone at first glance.
Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is such a spy. He chain smokes, drinks too much and has a pot belly not well-disguised by his ill-fitting suit. He looks like middle management for some automobile manufacturer – in fact, he is middle management but in a far different vocation. He is part of an anti-terrorist group, a small but dedicated group who monitor potential terrorist activities in Hamburg, a port city in Germany from which Mohammed Atta once organized the events of 9-11.
Since then, German intelligence has kept a close eye on what’s going on in the city as have their counterparts in the CIA. While Gunther’s group operates in a quasi-legal state, able to break German law with a certain amount of impunity, Dieter Mohr (Bock), the local station chief, is more of a by-the-book sort who has a bureaucrat’s soul and the keen political sense of a born game player. Naturally he and Gunther clash repeatedly, Dieter disdaining the cowboy tactics of Gunther and Gunther less than forgiving of Dieter’s lack of field experience and political gamesmanship.
Into this highly volatile environment comes Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a half-Russian half-Chechen man who has escaped Russian prison and entered Germany illegally. The Russians have branded him a terrorist, but Gunther sees him as a means to an end. He could be just what the Russians say he is, or the innocent victim of overzealous Russian hatred for Chechens in general. Gunther really doesn’t care which. He sees him as an opportunity to get to bigger fish in the pond, particularly Dr. Abdullah (Ershadi), a spokesman for Arabic charities who may actually be raising money for terrorist organizations while decrying terrorist activities publicly.
Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. He needs to get in touch with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe) for reasons that are his own. Gunther, a manipulative and sometimes cruel man, knows that he needs to make Annabel and Tommy his operatives and he will stop at nothing to do it, be it blackmail, kidnapping and intimidation, or even death threats. Whatever it takes.
But there are games within games, with a U.S. Embassy official (Wright) who may or may not be a CIA operative and who may or may not be Gunther’s ally. Gunther and his team are walking a fine line and with Mohr breathing down his neck he may not make it out of this one unscathed.
This is based on a recent John Le Carre novel (the acclaimed author is also a producer on the project) and like most Le Carre works, this is more of a gritty look at the world of espionage rather than the gloss and glamour of the James Bond series. Anton Corbijn, whose last film was The American which is similarly themed, is the perfect choice to sit in the director’s chair. Like the work of Le Carre, that film is complex and tense with characters whose motivations are maddeningly unclear. In other words, probably a more realistic look at the intelligence business.
This is the last leading role that Hoffman would complete before his untimely passing earlier this year and thankfully, it’s a good one. Gunther is world-weary, tired of the constant betrayal and backstabbing which on occasion has cost him the lives of his colleagues. The only people he truly trusts are on his team and one suspects, he isn’t 100% certain about them either. He is a master manipulator but he can also have his own buttons pushed. Near the end, you hear Hoffman wheezing as he breathes – whether that was an indication of the actor’s ill health or if he was capturing the out of shape frustration and passion of Gunther as things come to a head we’ll probably ever know.
McAdams is a good actress in her own right, but she is hidden behind a German accent whose authenticity varies. Dafoe and Bruhl are also fine actors but neither has a whole lot to do. Wright makes a fine foil for Hoffman, cool and terribly overbearing who clearly has little respect for Gunther and European intelligence in general.
In fact, this has a much more European outlook on modern espionage and intelligence. Le Carre generally had a fairly cynical outlook towards the benevolence of the CIA and often made them either incompetent or villainous in his books. There is often a moral complexity to his work which requires a lot more patience than American audiences tend to be comfortable with.
And therein lies the rub. American audiences are not tailor made for the kind of pacing and complexity that comes with the best of Le Carre’s work. There is no easy way to put it – we Americans tend to have a very finite attention span and we require stimulation nearly non-stop. That’s what years of video games will do to you.
Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does a great job of making Hamburg a character in the movie. She’s dingy, gritty and a little bit disreputable here – we see the seedy underbelly of a town that already has a rough reputation to begin with. We get that palpable sense of danger and dissatisfaction.
I found this movie to work on a lot of levels, particularly in regards to Hoffman’s performance which has an outside shot of netting him a posthumous Oscar. Roadside Attractions, the art house arm of Lionsgate, has a few Oscar nominations to its credit so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I found the middle of the movie to be a bit tough sledding, but nevertheless this is a fitting send off to one of the best actors of his generation who left us too soon.
REASONS TO GO: Stand-out performance by Hoffman. Nice tension. Hamburg used as a character in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Le Carre likes a lot of twists and turns which some moviegoers may not appreciate. Stately pacing.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the last completed film of Philip Seymour Hoffman (he also appears in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts one and two but his filming hadn’t been completed when he passed away).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10