Brad Anderson’s Beirut feels a lot more complicated than it actually is. Set in 1982 Beirut weeks before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the movie operates against the backdrop of a geopolitical clusterfuck. Israel is looking for an excuse to go to war with Lebanon; the Palestinian Liberation Organization is trying to maintain a ceasefire, and a group of Palestinian terrorists just want to watch the world burn. America, guided by Henry Kissinger, has its own agenda, as well, and it’s not exactly on the up-and-up.
Strip all the geopolitics away, however, and Beirut is basically a fairly easy-to-follow hostage thriller. The Palestinian militia kidnaps a CIA agent, and a former American diplomat, Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), is called in to handle negotiations.
Back before the Lebanese civil war, Skiles was living a nice life in Beirut until his wife was killed in a stand-off with terrorists. Cut to seven years later, and he’s pulled away from his union negotiation gig in Boston, where he’s drinking his pain away.
The drinking doesn’t end when Skiles is called back into Beirut against his wishes in order to help free the CIA Agent, formerly Skiles’ best friend, and no one better knows better than Hamm how to find the line between drunkenly surly, dissolute, and charming. For his part, Skiles distrust all the operators — the Americans included — and has to navigate all of their agendas in order to save his friend with only one trusted confidante, another CIA Agent played by Rosamund Pike.
It’s a very John le Carré kind of movie, or Bourne without any action (Skiles’ only weapon in the film is his negotiating skills) — it’s a spiritual prequel, so to speak, to screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. It also doesn’t ask of its audience to pull for any particular side politically — they’re all driven by uncomfortable agendas, but at least the militia group is transparent about it. The only agenda that Skiles is driven by is personal, and I won’t spoil the intricacies of that except to say that he has both a close connection to the hostage and the militia leader.
Beirut is not without its shortcomings. The trailer was met with considerable criticism for giving short shrift to the Lebanese characters, and the movie itself doesn’t fare much better. Both the Israeli and Arab characters are paper-thin caricatures, while the American supporting characters are better developed but shady (Shea Whigham (playing nearly every Shea Whigham role) and Dean Norris — almost unrecognizable with hair — acquit themselves well). The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was also right to call out the film for its simplistic portrayal of Arabs and regional politics — the film lays out the warring factions, but it does nothing to explain why they are fighting or what is at stake. There’s also barely a Lebanese presence in a movie, which features no Lebanese actors and is filmed in Morroco.
In fact, the movie didn’t really even need to be set in Beirut — the Lebanese Civil War backdrop only gives it the illusion of gravitas, but ultimately doesn’t play a particularly crucial role in the film, unless one considers Arab children running around with guns crucial to the story. It’s a fictional plot that could have been set anywhere by substituting these warring factions with different warring factions and leaving the hostage storyline — the meat of the story — intact.
The movie, however, belongs to Hamm — and to a lesser extent, Pike — and though he could have played the role just as well in Paris or Moscow or New York, he is terrific, oozing sweat and bourbon vapors in a role that feels as well suited to him as Don Draper. It has plenty of problems, but as an espionage thriller, it provides a solid two hours of entertainment.