Bearded Chechen militants. Stealth German spies. Opaque Muslim leaders. Shady CIA operatives. It's never quite clear who's the victim and who's the perpetrator in director Anton Corbijn's new espionage thriller, "A Most Wanted Man."
Adapted from a 2008 John le Carré novel and set in post-9/11 Hamburg, rogue anti-terror units and government intelligence agencies are in a race to uncover potential terror cells after the city unknowingly harbored some of the men who planned the World Trade Center attack.
"Unfortunately, the story is topical," says Corbijn of the film, which opens Friday. "The book was based on real-life events so it was art imitating life. But after the Boston [Marathon] bombing, it's now life imitating art. Before that bombing, though, I don't think many Americans had ever heard of Chechnya."
Much of what's touched on in the Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions production does seem as if it's alluding to recent headlines — from revelations that we're under surveillance by the National Security Agency to the concern that some of our military measures overseas to stop terror may in fact be stoking it.
But the story line was written years before these developments. It's one of famed spy novelist Le Carré's (real name: David Cornwell) later works, dealing with terrorism, national security and values in the new, chaotic world. His earlier books, including the George Smiley series, dealt with what in retrospect seems like the simpler days of the Cold War.
In "Wanted Man," German Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last starring role before his death) is a disheveled, chain-smoking spy who looks more like a used-car salesman than a master of espionage. He's determined to do whatever it takes to keep his country — and the world — safe from acts of terror.
But in dealing with Germany's intelligence services and the CIA, he also sees how paranoia and arrogance can render pinpoint operations scattered and innocent people guilty. It's a paradigm that keeps his moral compass spinning between poles.
When a young Chechen Muslim man arrives in Hamburg with a questionable inheritance from his Russian father, it sets off a chain of regrettable incidents that at times feel eerily prescient.
Le Carré has always explored the murky areas between right and wrong in his writing, but his earlier novels featured more definitive heroes and villains, and the film adaptations of those books mirrored that dynamic. Many of his 20-plus novels have been made into TV thrillers such as the BBC series "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (starring Alec Guinness as Smiley) or such films as "The Constant Gardener."
But as the very nature of warfare, enemies and global threats has changed, so have Le Carré's novels. They now reflect a world where acts of terror can happen anywhere and ambiguity over what to do about it is far more prevalent than actionable absolutes.
Le Carré's sons, Stephen and Simon Cornwell, produced "A Most Wanted Man," and they say the movie reflects their father's complex moral and political viewpoint.
"The film has no antagonist," Stephen Cornwell said. "There isn't a villain. Everybody is human, and all their motivations are grounded in some truth. We didn't want to say there was a right or wrong. Too many movies and narrative forms try to define things in too absolute a way. That was one of the more fascinating things about making this."
A cerebral film far from the world of Jason Bourne, there are no high-speed car chases through crowded plazas, major helicopter explosions or building-leaping spies who defy gravity with their hair neatly in place.
"It would have been a lot easier to have the police storm the building and beat people up," joked Netherlands native Corbijn. Before making his last two films, 2007's "Control" and 2010's "The American," the Berlin-based director made his name as a still photographer.
From its backdrop (Hamburg) to its ethos (thoughtful and nuanced), the film has a very distinct European worldview. When the U.S. is represented here, it's via a cold, act-now, ask-questions-later CIA spy played by Robin Wright.
"Someone said to me, 'You're anti-American,' which is funny because I like America very much," said Corbijn, who is working on a film about James Dean. "But America likes to be seen as the beacon of democracy, so I think it's valid to ask questions about some of its actions. ... In the name of freedom, things get done that actually limit our freedom. I think these are things to worry about — or at least think about."
"A Most Wanted Man," which also stars Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams, unravels with a quiet anxiety that may prove a challenge for audiences used to more visceral cues in their suspense. But it's hard to take your eyes off Hoffman as he turns the seemingly mundane, unsympathetic and rather prickly character of Bachmann into a complex individual who struggles with his own empathy.
His portrayal of a man so obsessed with his mission that it's literally destroying his health is almost too believable at times. Hoffman, who died in February of a drug overdose, is smoking nonstop in the film and is often huffing and puffing merely walking down the street.
"He gave so much nuance and depth to Bachmann, it's such an achievement to make us feel for the guy so much," said Corbijn of the actor. "It was the first time I worked with Philip and I grew very fond of him. But I find it too hard to watch now. It's a bit close to the bone."