2018, R, 109 min. Directed by Brad Anderson. Starring Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Larry Pine, Mark Pellegrino, Idir Chender, Ben Affan, Leïla Bekhti, Alon Abutbul, Kate Fleetwood, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Mohamed Zouaoui, Mohamed Attougui.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 6, 2018
In 1972, Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East, a bohemian destination on a par with Monaco. By June of 1982, it was a free-fire zone. Mason Skiles (Hamm) knows both ends of that era, first running cocktail parties for the U.S. Embassy, then begrudgingly returning to the formerly great cosmopolitan city, now a crater-riddled internecine battlefield: And that's where Beirut has taken a pummeling of its own. Lebanese groups lambasted the trailer for a cliched depiction of the city as a terrorist-drenched hellhole. That could explain why it's been moved from its original release day – the 43rd anniversary of the first day of the Lebanese Civil War.
But Beirut is not a simple USA good/Middle East bad narrative. Instead, Skiles only returns because intelligence officer Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped, and Skiles – who has been pouring himself into every available bottle since his wife's murder during a botched operation – is the only man with whom the militia will deal. The group (clearly based on Abu Nidal) wants him to orchestrate a prisoner swap for their leader; the only wrinkle is that no one knows where he's gone, or who is holding him.
When he's not at his desk as Hollywood's script polisher of choice, Tony Gilroy (State of Play) has attempted to establish himself as a neo-John le Carré. Beirut is his most successful emulation to date, but it's no Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, rather more a lesser work like The Little Drummer Girl. He wants to create a balanced view of a state in collapse, where every player has fault and legitimate complaints, and his script is successfully greasy, and distrusting of an environment where burnouts like Skiles are the only clear-eyed observers. But the issue is not his script; rather, it's The Machinist director Anderson's reliance on the hackneyed sepia tone and constant call to prayer that is cinematic shorthand for "somewhere in the Middle East." However, Gilroy's adept hand with a spycraft tale makes this Argo with a nihilist streak. He never tries to completely unwrap the region's complicated history, of the Israelis and Syria and the PLO and Druze Militias, of competing interests, and tensions between alleged allies (never better executed than in a febrile subplot involving Whigham's embassy staffer, Norris' CIA station chief, Pike's case officer, and their supposed friends at Mossad). It's about a normalized nightmare: bombing raids in the distance as a point of curiosity; machine-gun fire punctuating but not interrupting a conversation.
What papers over any remaining cracks is the perfect casting of Hamm as the fixer turned business consultant dragged back into the morass. His raw charisma, and near-peerless ability to sweat martinis through a disheveled linen suit and still look stylish, sends the film's moral compass spinning – exactly as it should.
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Beirut, Brad Anderson, Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Larry Pine, Mark Pellegrino, Idir Chender, Ben Affan, Leïla Bekhti, Alon Abutbul, Kate Fleetwood, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Mohamed Zouaoui, Mohamed Attougui