Spy thrillers fall into two basic categories – field and non-field. James Bond and Jason Bourne fall into the former category and are largely action thrillers, with copious amounts of running, jumping, fighting and shooting.
The other type is best represented by Harry Palmer and George Smiley, and tends to be much quieter with emphasis on talking, analysis and planning.
Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man falls firmly into the latter category, as a German Intelligence team headed by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the last role he completed before his tragic and untimely death) analyse, talk and plan how to neutralise terrorists in Hamburg. The film’s great strength is the detail with which it portrays the everyday work of espionage – the patience, the plethora of information that must be sifted for analysis, the clandestine meetings in public places and, above all, the relationships between spies as well as between agents and informants. Earlier in the year, I criticised Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its failure to successfully marry its conspiracy and superhero elements, the film feeling like two halves with insufficient connection. A Most Wanted Man does not have to include an action element – there are two action set pieces that are well-handled but not central to the drama – but it does a fine job of blending old-fashioned legwork and intrigue with contemporary concerns and technology. Post-9/11 espionage drama from Body of Lies to 24 is often in thraldom to the high tech gadgetry of counter-terrorism, but the computers, mobile phones and surveillance cameras of A Most Wanted Man are contextual rather than fetishized. The emphasis is upon the relationships that are key to spying – Bachmann’s team convinces as a committed but affable group of co-workers; the relationships between Bachmann and his informants, including Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and Annabell Richter (Rachel McAdams) are fraught but engaging, and it is the interplay of these relationships that leads to a nerve-shredding climax based around signatures on bank transfers. To describe a film as following relationships and culminating in financial transactions sounds more like a domestic drama than a spy thriller, but A Most Wanted Man succeeds in dramatizing these seemingly banal features into a genuinely gripping, as well as grim and dour, portrayal of contemporary espionage.