Directed by: Brad Anderson/2018
Brad Anderson returns to film following a recent run in television after having early success with The Machinist and more recently, Stonehearst Asylum. The script comes from Tony Gilroy, who has had lots of success in the politics, spy and espionage genre with The Bourne series and State of Play, and in the hard-line negotiator films that include Michael Clayton and Proof of Life. Paired together, the result is a new film entitled Beirut, starring Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Baby Driver) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Die Another Day).
Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is at the start of the film a U.S. diplomat based in Beirut, Lebanon. Known for his fast talking, he is entertaining various political dignitaries at his home in the “Paris of the Middle East”, along with his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti). When his CIA friend Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino-Capote) shows up to take in a 13-year old refugee named Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), whom the Skiles have taken in as a part of the family, Mason tries to talk the agency out of it.
Unbeknownst to Mason, Karim has an older brother named Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), a wanted Palestinian terrorist who is especially wanted by neighboring Israel following the recent attacks in Munich at the 1972 Olympic Games. While Mason tries to reason with CIA officials, Abu Rajal shows up to grab his younger brother before the U.S. takes him in and gives him to Israel’s Mossad Agency. This results in casualties at Mason’s house, including the death of his wife. Angry at Cal, Mason leaves Beirut for good.
When we catch up with Mason, its been 10 years (now 1982). He is a low-level negotiator, and now a heavy drinker. He is approached one day by an old acquaintance who offers him money to go to Beirut immediately to participate in a lecture as cover for a more pressing issue that the CIA needs him for, refusing to take “no” for an answer.
The 10 years have not been kind to Beirut as Christian and Muslims have divided the city with the PLO firmly entrenched, which invites Israel to move into the country if provoked. Its a tinder box that requires a skilled negotiator to negotiate a hostage release that would threaten to involve all sides of this ever-nearing conflict. Joining Mason, once in country, is cultural attache Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike). In addition to her, Mason must navigate the political minefield of CIA, embassy, and State Department members (including Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, and Larry Pine) who are all trying to run the operation and the negotiation. Each only sharing with each other, and Mason, the bits of information they feel they have to provide to keep things moving.
The hostage, it turns out is Mason’s old friend Cal. The hostage taker is a grown-up Karim (now played by Idir Chender), who is using Cal as leverage to get his brother Abu Rajal back. It is Karim that requested Mason to be the negotiator, as he knows that Mason doesn’t trust any of the American agencies any more than he does. What Mason can’t figure out is whether Karim is the same boy they knew at age 13, or if in the intervening decade he has become the sort of terrorist like his brother.
The script for Beirut is tight, and while fictional, it uses the backdrop of Lebanon as it existed before the 1982 War in Lebanon when Israeli forces invaded the country to attack PLO positions who were attacking Israel’s population. It also borrows from the real-life 1984 kidnapping of William Buckley, a CIA station chief. Ultimately, it is a script that plays well to Jon Hamm’s best strengths as an actor and following his performance in Baby Driver, Beirut should open up many more opportunities for big screen success for Hamm.
Pike is solid in her role, but as her character is a woman in the Middle East 35 years ago, she, as Sandy Crowder, is hamstrung by what she is able to do culturally, as well as politically. Pike, who is a fine actress makes something of her role anyway, effectively maneuvering her way through the landmines being laid by the various American agency officials who are all manipulating things for their own gang among the good-ole boy network they’ve built, and doing so with a believably as it relates to the rest of the script.
The supporting cast is strong, and the film nails the 1970’s-1980’s look effectively well, not just in terms of dress, but also the appearance of the city of Beirut itself, though the movie wasn’t filmed there. While there doesn’t seem to be a strong sort of release buzz for this film, it is a solid film in the spy, negotiation, political, espionage genre and a potential star making role for Hamm as he seeks to truly establish himself on the silver screen. Given the competition of Blockers, or A Quiet Place opening wide this weekend, Beirut should at least be considered above Blockers.