A Most Talented Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death in February shocked the film world and was regarded as a major loss to the field of acting, as well as to cinema as a whole. Throughout his lifetime, his appearances alternated between least common denominator movies such as “Along Came Polly” and “Mission: Impossible III” to high-art works, like “Capote” and “The Master.”
It was the latter type of movie that won him near universal praise and admiration, and through which he presented himself as one of the best American actors to ever rise to prominence.
And his ascendance was accompanied by nothing even resembling the blowhard or the braggart. He remained, as ever, humble, grateful and diligent. Interviewers gleaned little to nothing of his personal life, but instead were told about work ethic and the philosophy of performance.
In Hoffman, the cinema had a bonafide actor’s actor.
Earlier this year, at the time of his fatal overdose, Hoffman had recently finished two films: “A Most Wanted Man” and “God’s Pocket.” Both films enjoy a fantastic performance from the actor and are worthy representations of his ability. (He will also appear in the new installment of the “Hunger Games” later this month, although apparently a major scene he had not yet shot will be digitally created — which I admit does make me at least queasy, if not outright disgusted.)
While “God’s Pocket” takes place more than two decades ago, “A Most Wanted Man” is very much a contemporary film concerned with modern issues. Primarily about a subject as thrilling as German intelligence agents and their investigation of potential terrorists operating in Hamburg, it nonetheless remains grounded throughout.
Far from making the movie uninteresting or sluggish, this sober aspect is one of its strengths. The believability excels, and really, with a topic so familiar to us and as emotionally and politically charged as the one the movie deals with, it absolutely must.
There are no gunfights or drawn-out car chases. When action happens, it occurs suddenly and briefly, leaving both the victim of the aggression and the viewer momentarily stunned.
Hoffman’s character, Gunther, also exudes an actuality. He is overweight and smokes constantly (and this is not the smoking of sexy abandon, but of dependency and necessity.) After losing a target in a short street chase, he pants and curses, his skin blotched pink in the cold and the total result looking miles away from the Jason Bourne or James Bond physiques that typically inhabit spy movies.
Later, when his exasperation and defeat are even greater, he positively wheezes in anger, creating one of the most unexpectedly powerful moments of the movie.
“A Most Wanted Man” also does a great job at subtly reinforcing its themes. There is a recurring (but unembellished) motif throughout of characters standing on balconies and looking down at others. Both parties are aware of the exchange, that someone is always watching and being watched. Such is the nature of their jobs, but also of the 21st century.
“God’s Pocket” meanwhile concerns itself with the slightly incestuous nature of a tight-knit blue-collar community, a type of society largely perceived as anachronistic these days.
Directed by John Slattery (Mad Men) in his directorial debut and starring Christina Hendricks (also from Mad Men) and John Turturro alongside Hoffman in the lead, the film succeeds in creating engaging portraits of its characters, but lacks a crucial thematic cohesion when compared to “A Most Wanted Man.” The tone awkwardly shifts from humor to drama, with neither truly cresting.
Still Hoffman’s performance is excellent.
And these two films both highlight the stature and ability of a truly great actor, of how noticeable his absence is, and will be, from cinema.