You can be forgiven for watching the previews for Beirut on your TV screens and mobile devices and thinking you were seeing contemporary news reports on the ongoing violence in the Middle East — Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, ad nauseam.
But this is a movie set in the 1970s/80s where nothing seems to have changed between then and now. Well, except the increasing barbarism of civil wars between factions and the intractable violence between nations and their religions. Whether Jared Kushner and his diplomatic sinecure can make a difference remains to be seen.
Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) has brilliantly directed a compelling, heart-thumping spy flick from the rich script by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton, Rogue One: A Stars War Story). This script was written in 1991, but left in the drawer because it was considered just too provocative and incendiary. It’s a fictional script but based on true-life kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley.
The success of Argo in 2012 — also a movie about CIA operatives and a daring rescue of six Americans in Tehran during the US hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 — convinced producers that maybe now was the time for another political thriller set in the Middle East. Again, it’s a daring rescue of a kidnapped American that pushes the film along familiar lines. But this time let’s look at the story from the POV of the negotiator sent into the maelstrom of violence.
His technique is straightforward: "Christians in one corner, Muslims in the other corner, Jews in another, and Jack Daniels in between."
In 1972 Beirut, a picturesque seaside city, American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosts a cocktail party accompanied by his wife and Karim, the 13-year old Lebanese orphan (Yoau Saian Rosenberg) whom they hope to adopt. The festivities are disrupted when Mason’s best friend, CIA Agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with startling information about Karim. Seconds later, terrorists attack the party with tragic results. Mason's career is over and he leaves in disgrace and remorse. Since that tragedy a decade ago, Skiles is now a private-citizen labor negotiator back in the states, arbitrating between the increasingly hostile sides of labor-management disputes. He's a talker all right, smooth and glib and effective. But oh, how the mighty have fallen, and it’s quite a fall from the diplomatic corps to the airless, windowless, soulless meeting rooms discussing payrolls and pensions. When he’s not negotiating and arbitrating, he’s drinking, and drinking, and drinking.
Nobody did alcohol-soaked linen suits better than Jon Hamm as Don Draper in AMC's Mad Men.
Ten years later, caught in the crossfires of civil war in Lebanon, CIA operatives Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris) must return Skiles to Beirut, now a barely recognizable war-torn hellhole, to broker for the life of a friend he left behind 10 years ago. If the CIA needs Skiles again, then you know things are bad all over. It’ll be the ultimate test for his negotiation acumen, and just might provide the needed redemption for a man haunted by demons threatening to consume him.
Nobody did demon-haunted redemption better than Jon Hamm as Don Draper in AMC's Mad Men.
These two men, Don Draper and Mason Skiles, seem cut from the same cloth. Imagine that Draper has moved from the Madison Avenue advertising world of the 60s and landed in the desolate moonscape of Beirut in the 80s. He brings with him the same booziness, the world-weariness, the suit gone rogue, the self-destructiveness, yet still the fundamental decency.
Both Hamm and Pike are excellent, though Pike seems less than suitably used because she really does come across as just another diplomat whose blonde hair (think Clare Danes in Homeland) must always make her stand out in any middle Eastern crowd. But perhaps this is quite realistic, considering the tough world for women in the CIA 35 years ago with few female agents, and most were interchangeable. In Skiles' word, she's "the skirt."
Hamm, with his swarthy good looks and unshaven jaw, effortlessly maneuvers his way through the soak and the souk.
Though Hamm has had few big screen movie roles since Mad Men — Marjorie Prime playing an AI hologram, the comedy Keeping Up with the Joneses, and the comedy-crime movie Baby Driver — he deserves his breakout role, and maybe this is it.
A word about the production. The images of Beirut here in the film are horrifying as the city appears no more than corridors of concrete debris by day and brutal blood-letting by night. This film was shot in Tangiers, Morocco, not a place known for its debris and blood-letting, but apparently Tangiers has a section that’s a perfect stand-in for Beirut, all dating to a building boom 10 years ago that came from drug money. When the government figured that out, they immediately put a stop to the construction, so there are a ton of buildings in Tangier that are just half-built shells. The government wanted no squatters in the buildings, so they took sledge hammers and bulldozers to reduce the buildings to rubble. Voila!: Beirut 1982 with all its blood, religion and revenge. This landscape is masterfully captured by cinematographer Bjorn Charpentier. The score by John Debney is consistently suspenseful and edgy.
And reinforcing those murky themes of corruption and betrayal that must be a part of any spy flick, it’s a dark palette for much of the film. Be prepared to squint as you try to figure out who’s who and why’s why. For sure, it’s an exotic locale teeming with sweating, hirsute men, many of whom look alike and dress alike, so you’re always off-balance, wondering when the next sniper will erupt. It’s a smoky, dirty, grimy, beautifully tattered and shattered world that’s also deadly. Who do you trust in a world where the truth emerges only when it’s convenient — or profitable?
We'll save for a later date any discussion of Israeli or Palestinian response to a film that offers Americans as heroes, or uses the horrific backdrop of Lebanese conflagration as a venue for Hollywood entertainment. Like war itself, truth can be malleable, lost and found and lost again amidst the rubble.
Not much has changed.
But talking is still better than fighting.
Ben Wiley is a retired professor of film and literature at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.