A quarter-century-old script dusted off after the success of “Argo” brightened the box-office outlook for negotiation-based espionage tales, “Beirut” emerges a cracking intrigue closer in spirit to something like “The Year of Living Dangerously” than to that 2012 Oscar winner — or to scenarist Tony Gilroy’s more action-focused “Bourne” movies. Expertly directed by Brad Anderson, and starring Jon Hamm in top form, this complex but cogent tale of an anxious fictional hostage situation in 1982 Lebanon is a satisfying suspenser that easily rates as one of Sundance 2018’s most purely entertaining titles. Also one of its most promising in commercial terms, with Bleecker Street already on board for a spring U.S. theatrical release.
In 1972, Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is a U.S. diplomat living the good life in Beirut with his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti). They have no children of their own, as yet, but treat 13-year-old orphan refugee Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg) as “part of the family.” During a posh cocktail party, however, uninvited guests bring unwelcome news: Not quite so alone in the world as he’d pretended, little Karim has an older brother, and he’s no less than Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), a notorious Palestinian terrorist linked to the recent Summer Olympics massacre in Munich as well as other attacks.
Mason is trying to prevent the boy being dragged off for interrogation by Mossad agents when the party is scattered by gunfire: The elusive brother has turned up to nab his sibling before the Israelis do. An ensuing skirmish has tragic consequences for Mason, whom we next see 10 years later working as a labor-dispute mediator in Boston, completely cut off from his high-flying past. But that past surfaces unexpectedly when a distant acquaintance finds him drinking (as usual) in a bar. He’s offered thousands to immediately get on a flight to Beirut — the place he never wanted to see again — ostensibly in order to lecture at a university. He only consents because it’s clear the real reason is some matter of pressing importance, and “the Agency” won’t take no for an answer.
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He arrives well-lubricated to find the city he loved now in ruins after years of civil war. His designated minder, cultural attaché Sandy Crowder (Pike), immediately turns him over to a trio of CIA, embassy, and State Department officials (played Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, and Larry Pine) who reveal they’re dealing with a hostage situation: CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), the onetime best friend Mason hasn’t spoken to in a decade, has been kidnapped.
Why the perps specifically requested Skiles as negotiator soon becomes clear. Their leader is a now-grown Karim (Idir Chender), who trusts his former benefactor can broker an exchange for the release of the brother he believes is in secret Israeli custody, for what’s by now a very long list of pro-Palestinian terroristic acts. But the Israelis (repped by Alan Aboutboul’s military bulldog) claim they don’t have him, and probably wouldn’t give him up if they did. On the other side, the local PLO minister (Ahmed Said Arie) has his own personal and political hidden agendas — as do even the Yanks present, with their competing departmental priorities and careerist schemes.
Realizing he’s perhaps the only person here who really cares about saving Cal, Mason keeps giving Sandy et al. the slip to operate freely in his friend’s best interest. Eventually, however, he discovers Sandy is an ally, and they’re both willing to “go rogue” if necessary.
Gilroy and Anderson have managed to make a plausible suspense story (the script was very loosely inspired by CIA Station Chief William Buckley’s 1984 kidnapping, which had a very different outcome) riddled with political intrigue in the world’s geographic center of perpetual conflict — while keeping it relatively apolitical, in the sense of taking no particular “side.” That’s largely because, apart from our flawed but genuinely well-intentioned heroes, nearly everyone here operates out of duplicitous self-interest.
Hamm’s bleary but still debonair presence, Gilroy’s cynically witty dialogue, and the not-quite-confusingly-large array of colorful characters underline how “Beirut” aims to be less a statement about Middle Eastern strife than a good yarn propelled by the unpredictable currents of international politics. There’s an atmosphere of constant threatened violence, and a few jarring moments of the actual kind. But mostly the film trades in an agreeably old-school form of cinematic espionage intrigue. He may be no James Bond (a man who’d never admit that his alcohol habit is a problem), but Mason remains singularly unflappable even as he’s crashing through heavily armed checkpoints or stepping over the rubble of his old home.
It may turn out that Hamm, like George Clooney, needed a post-hit-series warmup stretch to hit his stride as a movie star. The fact that Mason bears considerable general-makeup overlap with Don Draper (in his boozing, jaded humor, resistance to team-playing, self-destructive streak, fundamental decency, etc.) doesn’t render less valuable the snug fit between actor and role. It’s a fine showcase, not unlike the one Gilroy created for Clooney with “Michael Clayton.” Pike’s character feels more contrived, though she acquits herself well enough, and the supporting turns are all strong.
This sort of enterprise is very tricky, and tricksy. “Beirut” confirms that the otherwise highly variable Anderson (who’s mostly worked in TV lately) is made for it, as he already proved with the equally accomplished somewhat-retro intrigue of “Transsiberian” in 2008.
Shooting primarily in Morocco, the filmmakers use subtle digital effects and other devices to vividly evoke a city already in ruins, with even worse to come. (There’s a parting brace of news footage from the Lebanon War, which started immediately after this story’s timeframe.) All hands contribute first-rate work, from Bjorn Charpentier’s faintly-’70s widescreen lensing and Andrew Hafitz’s taut but unrushed editorial pace to thoughtfully detailed design elements and a solid suspense score by John Debney.