During an Oscar telecast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to run an irritatingly long and poorly assembled montage of “socially relevant films.” While some of the films, like On the Waterfront, may have done the world so good, others like The Day After Tomorrow were simply examples of bad science, bad activism and bad cinema.
When the Hollywood back-patting finally came to an overdue conclusion, host Jon Stewart quipped, “And none of these issues was ever a problem again.”
Much of what makes Brad Anderson’s Beirut so refreshing is that it acknowledges that people who live in the title city have exceeded their quota of misery. Anderson and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton) thankfully don’t waste their time or ours pretending they know how to bring about Middle East peace.
Instead, Beirut is simply a thriller about keeping a single person alive. Actually, it’s two people: a hostage and the man trying to secure his release. Negotiator Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is in the middle of a soul-crushing arbitration between an angry union and a stingy employer. Neither side is budging, so it’s no wonder Mason is hoping that downing some booze might make the yelling end more quickly.
“…simply a thriller about keeping a single person alive.”
Before he can engage in additional self-pity, a cagey fellow offers him a flight to Beirut saying that the government needs his skills. He initially says no. In 1982, Beirut is where disputes end in bloodshed instead of arbitration. Mason once lived there as a diplomat and wound up losing his family.
From the title, it’s obvious he’s going anyway.
Once he’s there, Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), a CIA operative tells him that a militia has kidnapped his old friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino). The captive is the person the U.S. embassy normally sends to make these kinds of deals. This means Cal knows enough secrets to make any of the factions want to capture him. In a city where Christians, Muslims and a chorus of outsiders all crave an advantage, just about anyone could have Cal and hope to use his knowledge to crush their rivals.
While Mason is fluent in Arabic, he’s obviously outclassed by the challenge. Curiously, the kidnappers have actually requested his services. He may not be up to the task, but he can’t reject it, either.
Beirut features a long list of factions and carefully avoids selecting anyone as “the good guys.” Officials at the American embassy like Donald Gaines (Dean Norris) and Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) are embezzling from the U.S. government and clearly, aren’t helping return the city to its once elegant past.
“Characters who are on the screen for mere minutes leave vivid impressions…”
Gilroy and Anderson introduce dozens of characters and organizations during the film’s tight 109-minute running time and juggle them effortlessly. Characters who are on the screen for mere minutes leave vivid impressions, so Anderson can depict a confusing atmosphere without losing the audience in the process.
Hamm has played talented but tormented characters like Mad Men’s ad wizard Don Draper before, and he has a knack for people of doing great and grotesque things in the same moment. His handsome features and sonorous baritone don’t quite hide his characters’ insecurities.
It’s refreshing to see Pike play someone who isn’t arm-candy or a psychotic. She’s around simply to keep Mason from harming himself before the captors can hurt Cal.
While Anderson expects viewers to pay attention and listen to long stretches of dialog, he and Gilroy also manage to come up with formidable jolts. There is an explosion or two, but in Beirut, violence has consequences, even if there is a lot of it. There’s a haunting sequence where a couple poses for a bridal portrait amid the rubble. Much of the tragedy is that far too many of them have died doing similar things.
As a result, the movie (skillfully using Tangier to substitute for the real Beirut) still delivers its requisite eye candy. It also includes just enough emotional and mental nutrition to make the thrills lasting.
Beirut (2018) Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Tony Gilroy. Starring Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, and Douglas Hodge.
8 out of 10