The opening shot of A Most Wanted Man is of water. It’s a simple shot of water sloshing up against a seawall, then sloshing slightly higher as a boat’s wake rolls past. It is, in a word, fluid. Then, a man pulls himself up out of the water and up a ladder, onto dry land. He’s soaking wet and anonymous; he does not speak. At this point, he, too, is completely fluid.
As the movie progresses, we learn more about this man. His name is Issa. He is half Chechen and half Russian. He was jailed and tortured. He is indeed a wanted man, and he is many other things.
And as the movie progresses, the shots we see change. The early ones are full of the images of liquid. Every establishing shot shows water in the background. We get shots of whiskey glasses, of coffee, of tea. The fluidity is there in the imagery. But as we move along, those shots go away. They’re replaced by rigid images - brushed steel and chrome, dry land and building guts. The coffee cups get covered up. Things are settling into a single pattern. The future is increasingly less fluid.
And eventually, Issa is defined - for the people who want to use him, and for us, the audience. He is what he is. His possibilities have been whittled down to a single one. He is no longer fluid.
Which is where the story ends.
But there’s another guy in the movie. He’s a spy, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last role, and he’s also caught up in the narrowing of focus, the loss of possibility. It’s a brilliant performance, with Hoffman shambling through the film like an aging, wounded bear, underestimated but still dangerous. Of course, Hoffman’s character is the one drawing the threads of possibility closed. He’s got an endgame in mind, and he relentlessly cuts off every other character’s other options until there’s only one way things can possibly play out. But he’s caught in it, too, as trapped as any of the people he’s been manipulating “to make the world a safer place” all along.
And when the final step is taken, when the endgame goes horribly wrong, then we realize that Hoffman’s character’s story parallels Issa’s. That in thinking he was master of his own destiny, he was led to a place where there was only one way things could end, and it was not the one he imagined. That like Issa, he had retreated from a bloody past in hopes of perhaps drawing some good out of evil, and that he was encouraged to think this was a possibility in order to serve the ends of others.
I’ve seen reviewers call this a “minor” film, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s a minor key film, where the stakes are high in human terms but the plot is distinctly lacking in showpiece explosions. Everything is understated - conversations and plots, interrogations and chases. There are maybe half a dozen moments of physical violence in the film, and no blood. And that’s fine. Explosions and blood would have made this about the moment of conflict and the adrenaline rush of the race for survival. What A Most Wanted Man touches on instead is the bigger game, and the notion that big things are made from small actions, combined and conjoined in myriad ways.
There’s one moment in the middle of the film, unrecognizable when it happens, when Hoffman’s character is offered a way out of what’s coming. It’s an admission from his American contact that it was her people who blew his op in Beirut, who got his people killed, who got him demoted to Hamburg. It’s a suggestion that she shouldn’t be trusted, and that he should walk away while he still has the chance.
He doesn’t walk away, doesn’t even realize what he’s being offered. And so everyone’s fate is sealed, in minor gestures that have major consequences.
If you’re getting the impression that it’s not a cheerful film, you’re absolutely correct. To watch A Most Wanted Man is to watch a failure of hope, to see good intentions and a desire to lessen bloodshed cynically used for the benefit of the ambitious and uninformed, to observe old failures repeated in a way that will recreate old problems. It is, in its own quiet way, vastly pessimistic in a way that shouts “it doesn’t have to be this way”. And as such, it’s worth seeing, and listening to.