Philip Seymour Hoffman Grappled With Broken Systems in His Final Roles

by Brice Ezell

10 November 2014

Both A Most Wanted Man and God's Pocket reminder us of how Hoffman always rose to the occasion of the role and drew our attention to the larger structures at play.
 
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A Most Wanted Man

Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright

US DVD: 4 Nov 2014

One of the few saving graces the world had after the announcement of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death at an all-too-young 46 was that there were still new films of his to be seen. At the time of his passing, four films featuring Hoffman in a key role had yet to be released: God’s Pocket, A Most Wanted Man, and the two-part finalé to The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay. Part one of Mockingjay will release over the 2014 holiday season, with part two following not long after that in 2015. God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man, both serious drama films where Hoffman got to flex his acting chops, are now out on DVD, each standing as their own snapshot of Hoffman at the end of his career. In terms of the films themselves, the results are uneven, but no matter the picture he’s in, Hoffman rises above the weaknesses in writing and direction and gives the soulful, existentially frustrated performances that further solidify just how vital an acting talent he was.

First, the good: Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carré‘s 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man. Set in the bleak, grey environs of Hamburg, Germany, the film concerns the fate of one Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Muslim man fleeing from Turkey after being tortured by a shadowy terrorist organization. Unfortunately for Karpov, German intelligence agencies, when made aware of his whereabouts, believe his reason for being in Hamburg has to do with making connections to local Islamic radical groups. (The excessive vigilance with which these intelligence agencies act toward Hamburg’s Muslim population is explained through a title card at the film’s beginning: the 9/11 attacks were planned in Hamburg.)

Some German officials, such as Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) want to apprehend Karpov before (they think) he does anything serious. Others, such as the disgruntled Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), wish to bring Karpov into their ranks, with the hopes of using him as a mole into any potentially lethal groups forming in Hamburg.

In contrast to the straight-laced Mohr, Bachmann operates entirely in the shadows. His mandate is to behave as an unknown, such that he can make shady connections with local informants and gather data. Bachmann plays the long game, which makes him the natural antagonist of someone like Mohr, whose wish is to bring as many (perceived) threats in as possible. Some, such as the American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), are willing to let Bachmann play his long game, but only insofar as concrete results are produced. Unfortunately, in Bachmann’s game, results are in short supply.

This is where A Most Wanted Man is at its most successful. While the le Carré source material and Corbijn’s dispassionate, chilly direction might lead one to think the film involves lots of tense chases and gunfights, the real battles of the storyline take place in conference rooms. The cinemaphotography, executed splendidly by Benoit Delhomme, is particularly indicative of this. While most of the exterior shots of Hamburg are drab and at times lifeless, the meetings in boardrooms and office halls, particularly the film’s final conference room meeting, are quite often beautiful, in both lighting and staging.

Movies such as Kathryn Bigelow’s two takes on US foreign policy in the Middle East, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, would have the world believe that the key battles involve targeted killings and IEDs. In contrast, A Most Wanted Man posits a truth that, if less thrilling, rings far more realistic: the major conflicts at the moment happen between the realpolitik of the major Western countries and their counterintelligence operations.

The resolution of A Most Wanted Man (spoilers ahead), wherein Karpov is captured alongside a Muslim financier, whom Bachmann had been playing the long game with in his attempt to bring him in, reveals the true battleground of the war on terror. Bachmann’s plan was undone by Mohr, working in conjunction with Sullivan. Essentially, the higher-ups pulled the rug out from under Bachmann at the behest of the US, which, as the movie makes quite clear, holds significant clout in anti-terrorist actions.

The script, penned by Andrew Bovell, is ingenious; whereas an ordinary spy thriller might have it that Karpov is taken out by an assassin’s bullet, the ultimate revelation here is that there are no villains or “good guys”. Instead, there are merely the political and strategic incentives of the respective governments involved. Bachmann is undone not because he isn’t crafty enough—as Hoffman portrays him, he is beleaguered but cunning—but rather because he is too low on the political food chain.

The closest thing someone working virtuously on Karpov’s behalf is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lawyer who represents people like Karpov, who are functionally stateless. Her motives, along with most everyone’s in this film, are at times suspect, but on the whole she tries to act in Karpov’s best interest. While McAdams’ spotty attempt at a Germanized accent isn’t as unwavering as her character’s commitment to justice for those seeking asylum in an increasingly stateless age, her performance is a fine one in a heavily stacked cast. Sadly, as honorable as Richter’s intentions are, she is even lower on the food chain than Bachmann.

A Most Wanted Man reminds us that the negotiations and strategies for the War on Terror, made in top-secret government buildings, aren’t operating in anything resembling a legal realm. For that reason, Richter can only go so far, as one can’t make legal demands from government agents whose dictates allow them to subvert legal categories. (For a real world example, look to the creation of the “enemy combatant” category, a complete fiction that doesn’t conform to traditional definitions of war.) Bachmann, of course, knows that fighting terrorism happens outside of traditional legal codes; his job is structured on that premise. But the downside to working outside the normal sphere of governance is that the same method can be turned against its operatives.

As Bachmann watches his meticulous plan unravel at the end, it becomes clear just how arbitrary the whole game of fighting terrorism is. This clash is far from a war of ideas, ideologies, or nations; in the view of A Most Wanted Man, the War on Terror is ultimately a battle of interests. It’s far from a glamorous conception of a spy thriller, but it certainly rings true in a way that few thrillers do.

Included with the home video release of A Most Wanted Man is a making-of featurette and a short called “le Carré in Hamburg”.

God's Pocket (2014)

God’s Pocket (2014)

Like A Most Wanted Man, the directorial debut of Mad Men‘s John Slattery, is a bleak affair. In the working class town of God’s Pocket, “everybody here has stolen something from someone else”, as newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) narrates at the film’s opening. From the look of everyone, Shelburn’s observation rings painfully obvious. Viewers can count on one hand the amount of times anyone smiles throughout the movie. God’s Pocket is where all citizens capitulate to the grime and muck of their existence; Slattery makes sure to make every frame permeate with fatalism. As Shelburn puts it, “No matter what anybody does, they’re still here. Whatever they are, is what they are.”

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God’s Pocket

Director: John Slattery
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, Caleb Landry Jones, Domenick Lombardozzi

US DVD: 9 Sep 2014

The plot is simple enough. The cantankerous and racist son of Mickey (Hoffman) and Jeanie Scarpato (Christina Hendricks) is killed at the construction site where he works. His coworkers tell the police that it was a freak accident involving a crane, an explanation that Mickey is more or less content to accept. Jeanie, however, is beside herself upon the news of her son’s death, refusing to believe that it was an accident. Mickey, wishing to please his wife, tries to deal with the death without ruffling too many feathers, but runs into trouble when he realizes that he can’t afford the coffin that Jeanie wants for her departed son.

Meanwhile, Shelburn has come into town so as to write a story about the lugubrious God’s Pocket. Unsurprisingly, his “out-of-towner” vibe and prying eyes aren’t taken too kindly by the blue collar locals. His somewhat prickly narration bookends the story, sealing in a tale of misery with eloquent language that, in the end, is the closest God’s Pocket comes to heightening what is an unflinchingly morose film from its own self-obsessed darkness.

The acting, although solid overall, can’t rescue Slattery’s direction and script (co-written with Alex Metcalf) from its fatal flaw: confusing darkness with depth. It’s clear that God’s Pocket is a town struggling to wring itself free from the weight of predestination, but at the same time there’s little reason to care for any of these characters. The most sympathetic character here is Jeanie, but even she is given short service by the script, which often depicts her in stereotypical bouts of hysteria. Mickey, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to care all that much for Jeanie, nor for the death of his son. In fact, it’s pretty hard to tell if he cares for much of anything at all.

There are many meanings one can try to force upon this story. Mickey’s inability to pay for his own son’s funeral could be read as a commentary on how the sub-optimal conditions faced by the workingperson refuse them even the right to die with dignity. The conflict between Shelburn’s literary observations about God’s Pocket and the townspeople just trying to make it through another day, could be seen as a microcosm of the class struggle. But at at paltry 89 minutes, God’s Pocket rarely explores any of these things in depth. Instead, Slattery merely depicts the continual drudgery of these hardworking people as if suffering, on its own, says all that needs to be said.

Without any meaningful context provided regarding the lives of the people living in God’s Pocket, this suffering becomes a chore to get through. The few special features included on the Blu-ray release don’t go into much depth, so all the audience is left with is a town that’s fated to be its own undoing. This premise has promise in the abstract, but Slattery’s grim film can’t see beyond it’s own darkness, to the point where any humanity that might seep through the grime is utterly choked out. God’s Pocket is a movie that will make you hurt, but not in a way that’s rewarding.

Both God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man find Hoffman playing men who are trying to escape systems that are working against them. In the former, he tries to wrangle some meaning out of what appears to him (and the audience) to be a pointless, Sisyphean existence. In the latter, he tries his damnedest to make the best out of an inherently unaccountable system, but ultimately fails in the face of political palm-greasing Sadly, the world will never know what performances Hoffman had left in him after these two films.

For the time being, however, both A Most Wanted Man and God’s Pocket, the latter being as flawed as it is, are a reminder of one important thing about this fine actor: no matter the circumstances he was put in, he always rose to the occasion and drew the audience’s attention to the larger structures at play. Whether it be working within a clandestine intelligence agency or living in doomed blue-collar town, Hoffman gave us the chance to feel what it’s like to try our best to fight against a game that’s rigged from the start.

Splash image from A Most Wanted Man (2014)

A Most Wanted Man

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God’s Pocket

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