At first glance, the idea of Phillip Seymour Hoffman being in a spy movie didn't make a lot of sense to me. It wasn't that I doubted his ability to play the part of a secret agent - he was good enough he could have done almost anything he put his mind to - it was that I didn't understand why he would want to play a spy, given that he seemed to be drawn to smaller, more internal parts, and spy movies tend to feature larger than life characters in outsize situations. But when you watch A Most Wanted Man you can see why Hoffamn's interest was piqued: like a lot of his best movies, this movie is about a man's struggle to earn respect.
Because his movies tended to be so different from each other, it isn't immediately obvious how many of Hoffman's characters were frustrated with how little power they have in the world. But when you look more closely at his filmography, the through line becomes clearer. Consider the movies he made with Paul Thomas Anderson: there's Boogie Nights, where he plays Scottie, a gay man who hangs around porn sets all day but can never get laid because of his sexual orientation; or his evil mattress salesman in Punch Drunk Love who tries to viciously bully Adam Sandler's character over the phone but backs down almost immediately when he has to face the man in the flesh; but especially in the Master, where his Lancaster Dodd is all powerful within his cult but widely scorned outside of it. This tension is there in his big roles (like in Capote, where the diminutive writer is seen as a mere socialite, when he knows he's capable of writing work with more depth) and in his smaller roles (like in the Big Lebowski, where his character Brandt is continually emasculated by the rest of the characters, who don't respect him at all.) Whether they are sedate or violent, timid or grandiose, his characters all seem to be trying to balance their reserves of self-doubt against their raging egos.
Given his interest in that type of character a spy movie makes sense. Gunther, Hoffman's character in a Most Wanted Man, knows that his job gives him a very real amount of power, but because he works in the shadows he cannot convince the world that he matters; to an outside observer he's just an overweight middle aged guy in a sad little apartment. Even worse, he cannot convince the other intelligence agencies of his importance. He has a good network of informants, he has good judgment, he has all the tools he needs to be a good operative - except for the approval of other spies, who want to undercut him so that they can take the credit, or because they think his patience is ill advised. Gunther has a lot of sway over the people below him on the food chain - he could easily decide to have some of the people he's observing get deported, for example, or he could instantly ruin the career of a well meaning lawyer who is over her head if he formally accused her of aiding terrorists - but the power he could exert over civilians means nothing when he meets with the C.I.A. He's helpless before the government's bureaucratic machine because he's far less politically connected than his rivals. Gunther exists in the same damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't nether region of strength that the best Hoffman characters exist in.
Unfortunately, when compared against those other movies, A Most Wanted Man is kind of lacking. By the time it ends it has built into something interesting and engaging, but it takes so long at the beginning to set the stage that the first half feels more slack than it should. Actual spying takes a lot of observation, and since this movie is trying to be realistic, there's a lot of watching before there's movement. Gunther has to find his small fish, figure out how he fits in with the big fish, reel him in, turn him into bait, then set the trap for his real target. It's all heading to somewhere important, but watching someone who is watching someone else feels very passive, especially since we don't have all the information that Gunter has, so it isn't always clear what his plan is. That lack of immediacy makes the film seem a little bit pale in comparison to, say, the Master, where you might not always know where it's going, but you always have a sense that it's going somewhere.
There is a certain sort of irony to A Most Wanted Man, since it's about a man who isn't trapped between being a force to be reckoned with and a man that can be safely discounted, and it's a film that isn't entirely engaging but is still pretty memorable. I might not have immediately grasped why Philip Seymour Hoffman was interested in this movie, but now that I see that irony, it makes sense. After all, he was an actor who specialized in characters who were trapped between being ferocious and meek, and he was a man who looked like a schlub but was lionized as a powerhouse talent after he passed. Like a spy, who has one foot in our world and the other foot in a darker place, Philip Seymour Hoffman always seemed to have one foot in power and another in helplessness.