There’s something about a good spy novel that says “autumn,” and the best films in that genre reflect this.
The skies are overcast, a sort of pale gun-metal gray. Everything is rain and shadows, all the better for skulking about under the ever-present pall of death
Photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn gets this. He saw John le Carre’s “A Most Wanted Man” as an “autumnal sort of story,” a post-Cold War tale about terrorism, a Muslim immigrant who sneaks into Hamburg and the urgent but never frantic search for his contacts. Corbijn says he “insisted we film it in the autumn, and that it goes into wide release in most of the world this autumn,” and in the U.S. in late summer. It opens in Kansas City on Friday.
“The events of this movie make it feel like this is sort of autumn for mankind, as well,” Corbijn adds. And then there’s the fact that the film’s star, the much-heralded actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of an overdose before it was released.
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Hoffman, in what many are calling “his last, great performance,” is Bachman, a world-weary German anti-terrorism chief anxious to follow this possibly radicalized young illegal to his money people and his probable control agents. Rachel McAdams is an idealistic young attorney whose job it is to protect the rights of immigrants, and Willem Dafoe is a banker who doesn’t worry too much about where the money comes from or goes to, so long as it passes through his bank.
“This story feels like it has something to do with our lives, at the moment,” Corbijn (“The American,” “Control”) says. “After 9/11, the world changed quite a bit. I felt that this polarized world, in which we see so much in black-and-white terms, could use more gray in it. That’s what le Carre does.”
Dafoe appreciates le Carre’s “attention to detail, the authority the man has over the material. He knows this world, having been in the intelligence community.” John le Carre, whose spy novels have been Hollywood favorites since “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” on through “The Constant Gardener,” “The Tailor of Panama” and the recent hit “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, who began writing his fiction while still employed by Her Majesty’s spy agencies, MI5 and MI6.
“This man specializes in being able to tell a story, through the characters, from many different points of view,” Dafoe says. “And during the process of telling that story, we take everyone’s side, at one point or another. That’s really the case with this film, and it’s marvelous.
“Clearly, there are all these people trying to do the right thing, and they are kind of sucked into the events that happen around this illegal immigrant. They’re all flawed, even though each thinks he or she is doing the right thing. As we see those flaws, we empathize with first this person, then that one.”
Hoffman, playing a rumpled chain-smoking drinker seemingly toting the weight of the world on his shoulders, “carried a certain physicality that I wanted for the Bachman character,” Corbijn says. “He’s a good man, with good intentions. He’s done this for a while and he tries to go after the people who really matter, not the small timers.”
“Philip put some pretty extreme characters on the screen, over the years,” Corbijn says. “We remember them because of how big and vivid they were. But the sign of a great actor is being able to tone that down, play someone ‘normal’ with such depth and soul and hidden anger and fear. It’s beautiful to watch. “
Dafoe, who turns 59 at the end of July, says he relished the chance to work “with one of the really good ones,” Hoffman. The two actors didn’t know each other, “just each other’s work. Guys like Phil you seek out in this business.”
Hoffman died of an overdose last February, weeks after appearing to promote the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But those who worked with him see the film as a fitting tribute to an exacting actor. Both director and co-star say they were struck by Hoffman’s level of devotion to a role.
“He struggled at what he was great at, and that’s what made him remarkable,” Corbijn says.
“I didn’t even try to figure out what his game was,” Dafoe says. “When an actor’s that good, that flexible, you feel like you’ve known each other forever, and that makes acting in a film comfortable.”
Dafoe and Hoffman share several blackmail scenes where Hoffman’s agent threatens the banker into setting up the suspected terrorist. Corbijn got so immersed in the performances, he forgot himself, which he sees as the best tribute you can pay an actor.
“I recall watching the film during editing with Phil, and I had gotten so used to the Bachman character that I could not believe that was actually Phil sitting next to me. Here was the same guy who is so convincing on the screen, so complete, that you forget he was created by an actor. Phil and Willem can both do that. That’s the mark of genius.”