Films about investigative journalism exposing a dramatic event and/or cover-up have been popular for decades, from Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” and Sam Fuller’s “Park Row” to Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” to 2015’s Oscar winning “Spotlight,” all have expertly captured what it means to be a dedicated journalist tirelessly searching for the truth.
The best films about journalism offer viewers a potent story and relatable characters that can guide the audience, making them feel as if they are part of the investigative journey. When a film’s tale is true it can be even more powerful, as the new Canadian film “Most Wanted” proves really well.
Josh Hartnett, quite the underrated actor, gives his best performance yet as Victor Malarek, an investigative journalist who uncovers a sinister case of entrapment by Canadian Law Enforcement.
An excellent Antoine Olivier Pilon is Daniel Leger, an ex-junkie who is bullied into an extremely dangerous undercover drug deal/ set-up and ends up being sentenced to one hundred years inside a cell in Thailand.
As Daniel endures violent abuse inside the Thai prison, Hartnett’s character races time trying to unearth the undercover cops who set Daniel up for his fall and try to save his life.
Director/screenwriter Daniel Roby based his 1989-set film on the true story of Quebec drug addict who spent eight years in a Thai prison after having been set up by the Canadian Intelligence Service and used the factual event to his advantage without sermonizing about the corruption.
Roby does not need to draw attention to his filmmaking (and smartly stays away from overtly stylistic camerawork), as the drama inherent within the story is compelling enough to keep us riveted.
The film sharply intercuts Malarek’s discovery of Daniel’s imprisonment with flashbacks of the agents who are illegally setting him up, as we learn how and why the men resorted to such illegal tactics.
To up their cred within their own department, they continue to involve and manipulate Daniel, eventually bungling their own sting operation until he is in prison.
The great Stephen McHattie plays the lead officer, “Frank Cooper,” who won’t stop until his undercover operation is complete, regardless of the way it is bungled from day to day and ignoring all of the rules he must break, until finally imploding during its execution.
There are a few themes recurring through this thrilling drama. One is family and betrayal of trust. Hartnett and McHattie’s characters both represent this in different and interesting aspects.
Malarek misses the birth of his new baby due to his dedication to a story he is investigating. While his wife forgives him for that moment, as he dives deeper into Daniel’s case, she can no longer stomach his betrayal of his familial responsibilities.
Amanda Crew does fine work as Malarek’s wife “Anna” and shows her skill as an actress in a couple of tender moments with Hartnett. There are no histrionics in their scenes together, only expert acting and purposeful dialogue.
McHattie’s Cooper has an estranged son who works in the Canadian police and brings him aboard the illegal operation. In doing so, Frank is betraying his own duties as a father by endangering his son’s career and life. The actor is riveting here. Cooper is not a villain but an aging cop who has too long been passed over for promotions. He is looking for his big case and needs to prove something to his superiors, his fellow officers, and to himself. Stephen McHattie has long been an actor who memorable work in almost every film he is involved with. This role could be his absolute best.
Betrayal is the sin that leads these characters down the roads to their intersecting fates with the most devastating one happening to Daniel.
Daniel’s betrayal by his parents who refuse to believe he is on the wagon and beating his former drug addiction leads him to a depressed state. He falls in with Picker, a man who gives him his first taste of heroin in a long time.
Picker is played by comedian/actor Jim Gaffigan who does fine work. We know he isn’t right when he gives Daniel the drug but the next day he seems to feel sorry for him. Picker takes him under his wing and gives him a job and a place to stay. As he seems to genuinely care, Gaffigan pulls the rug out from under us and reveals his true intentions. It is a smart performance and Picker is truly an interesting character.
Watching Malarek uncover this despicable travesty of justice is made thrilling by Hartnett’s dedicated performance and the director’s sense of urgency.
Yvann Thibaudeau’s editing is sharp while Ronald Plante’s camera holds tight on each character, using his close framing to enhance the drama. Again, no flashy directing here. The drama is strong enough to sustain itself.
The film’s only fault is where it wraps things up too quickly. Once Daniel is in prison and Malarek goes on his hunt for the truth, we aren’t allowed enough moments of discovery. The film could have benefited from more scenes of Hartnett speaking with the authorities and people “in the know.” While the film is two hours and fifteen minutes long, it might have been even stronger with another half hour or so where we get deeper into the investigation. However, we do not review the film we wanted to see.
As it stands, Daniel Roby’s “Most Wanted” (originally titled “Target Number One”) is a particularly good true-life drama, at times riveting and emotional and full of performances that will stay with you.
“Most wanted” is one of the more interesting films of the year so far. A rewarding experience.