Dutch director Anton Corbjin’s political thriller, from John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, plays out like chess game whose characters are pieces in a match that can’t end in a draw. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, intelligence officials discovered that several al Qaeda conspirators, including leader Mohammad Atta, lived in Hamburg before moving to the United States. Shocked spy agencies, both German and American, suddenly saw the city as a potential terrorist incubator.
Günther Bachmann (the late Philip Seymour Hofmann) heads a German intelligence team tasked with investigating Chechen refugee Issa Karpov and respected Muslim academic and philanthropist Dr. Faisal Abdullah, both considered to have terrorist connections, with Abdullah as the key figure. With the help of an unusual troika — a young immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdam), a U.S. embassy official (Robin Wright) and a banker (Willem Dafoe) — Bachmann sets up a plan to expose Abdullah.
Hoffman’s Bachmann is coarse and messy, a man who after 9/11 has squirreled himself away in a dumpy Hamburg garage, as if to punish himself for having done too little. At the same time, he has a strong sense of right and wrong, loathes witch-hunts, and dismisses the idea of fighting fire with fire. He wants arrests, but the right way. Hoffman’s Bachmann is a morality-obsessed introvert who finds post-9/11 American intrusiveness increasingly objectionable.
This is tormented, low-boil stuff, very much in La Carré style, most of the action shifting between Berlin and Hamburg but played out in the key of Cold War moodiness. It’s a thriller whose explosives are human. Forget Martinis and Walther PPKs. Most of the hurt here is internal.
This was Hoffman’s last starring performance before his February 2014 death. The final vision of Bachmann is that of frustrated and disillusioned man, raging and angry, after which everything fades to black, in art as it was in life.