Günther Bachmann may pull a lot of strings as the head of a Hamburg-based anti-terrorism unit, but to call this schlubby, chain-smoking, hard-drinking German intelligence operative a spymaster just seems wrong. As beautifully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last and most powerful performances, the antihero of “A Most Wanted Man” is simply too much at the mercy of others to be a master of anything.

That doesn’t stop him from trying.

In the script (by Andrew Bovell, based on John le Carré’s 2008 novel), there are multiple references to putting people on leashes and tethering “goats” — an allusion to using humans as bait. But it is ultimately Günther himself who’s on a chain, although he doesn’t know it.

Günther has been assigned to Hamburg, the city that served as the base for the 9/11 conspirators, as a kind of penance for a blown operation in Beirut. As the film opens, he’s tracking a recent arrival to town — an undocumented immigrant named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), half Chechen, half Russian — who has just surfaced seeking asylum from Russia, where he was being imprisoned and tortured.

Although the German authorities and one CIA officer (Robin Wright) suspect that Issa is up to no good, Günther isn’t so sure. In any event, he hopes to use Issa to catch a much larger fish: an unnamed businessman suspected of funneling money raised by a Muslim philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) into arms for terrorists.

The complicated tale unspools — or, rather, counts down, like a clock wired to a time bomb — slowly and with the kind of insidery spy lingo familiar to readers of le Carré, who delivers a deliciously satisfying plot of Rube Goldbergian proportions. Günther hopes to get to Issa through his leftie lawyer (Rachel McAdams), who is negotiating with a German banker (Willem Dafoe) for the transfer of an inheritance bequeathed to Issa by his Russian father. What Issa intends to do with that small fortune — and how Günther manipulates both money and man from afar — is a fascinating study in the social engineering of spycraft.

Of course, blunter methods are sometimes employed as well. A scene in which Günther’s associates (Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl) throw a hood over the lawyer’s head and whisk her to an interrogation cell seems a bit Hollywoody, but generally, filmmaker Anton Corbijn (“The American”) keeps things grounded in unthrilling reality.

That’s not to say the movie is dull. Even an abortive chase scene in which a wheezing, paunchy Günther loses a suspect largely because he’s out of shape, helps to build tension, not destroy it. Günther may not be Jason Bourne, but his performance ratchets up the suspense until it’s almost unbearable.

Corbijn’s film exudes the cold, damp and gritty feeling of its port setting, which seems to be dotted with nothing but the dive bars apparently preferred by the booze-soaked Günther, who might be described as a cynical idealist. He’s in it to redeem himself, but he also believes — even though he pretends not to — that his work is making the world a safer place.

Although the cast is uniformly fine, Hoffman shines in a role that demands not showmanship, but a kind of complexity and contradiction that can be rendered only through the kind of dull character details that he excelled in, accumulating them from the inside out. Like the late actor, Günther is, in his own way, an artist at what he does, building something brilliant one brick at a time, then waiting for it to come tumbling down.

★ ★ ★ ★

R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity. 122 minutes.