“It’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”
The above quote suggests that Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), U.S. Diplomat, was never dealt a losing hand. Skiles’ life is a graced one, and he’s sitting pretty with a notable assignment in Lebanon that can make his name for good. That is until an assault on a state function leaves his wife dead and Karim, the boy the Skiles took in as their own, who’s also the younger brother of Rafid Abu Rajal, taken. Flash forward ten years and Skiles is a functioning alcoholic who now works as an arbitrator settling labor disputes. A hostage negotiation brings Skiles out of retirement and back to the place he once called home. The person he’s being asked to get back is a familiar face: Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino). Presently, Cal is the acting head of all Middle East operations for the CIA. His kidnapping ensures that a lot of sensitive information could find itself in the wrong hands if he isn’t brought back soon.
For an organization that deals in information almost exclusively, those around Skiles don’t lay their cards on the table. Cultural attache Sandy (Rosamund Pike) is Skiles’ handler but doesn’t feel comfortable revealing to him why he’s there. Station Chief Don Gaines (Dean Norris) is reluctant to bring in Skiles and National Security Advisor Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) doesn’t want to negotiate at all. Brushing up on old skills means Skiles must also sober up rapidly if the team is to avoid an international disaster. Yet seeing his failures in the wreckage around him drives Skiles to act–if recklessly–putting everything on the line. If this premise has a distinctly 90s feel, it’s because Tony Gilroy’s script was written almost 20 years ago before being discovered by director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9).
Anderson, who has been working steadily on cable dramas, directs the proceedings with the assured professionalism that the genre requires. Gilroy’s screenplay also received a modern polish, but still resembles the crackling fast-paced dialogue from his better-known works. A few too many plot points are guessed in advance, but Beirut is a satisfying enough thriller to keep audiences in their seats. As for the social politics of the film… it’s no secret that the trailer for Beirut was met with criticism for not filming in Lebanon and for the presentation of its Middle Eastern characters. However, with the exception of the film’s penultimate scene, this fictional account of the 1982 Lebanon War offers no easy heroes or villains. In the vein of John le Carré’s spy novels, Beirut sifts through the many motivations of factions within the U.S. government, the PLO, Israel and Lebanese militias, with Skiles trying to keep one step ahead of them all.
After his spectacular run on Mad Men as Don Draper, Jon Hamm has been left wanting in terms of good, meaty roles. Mason Skiles, like Michael Clayton before him, is a verbal dynamo, and Hamm is ideally suited for one such part. His physical delivery as Skiles alone suggests that he’s eager to show moviegoers he’s more than Don Draper, but the films have to meet him halfway. Rosamund Pike, after a very memorable turn in Gone Girl, and lately not much else, is equally game. The ever-present Shea Whigham and Dean Norris head a talented supporting cast that, a few wigs aside, is a major draw for viewers.
Decades ago, a character like Mason Skiles would have at least two feature lengths to his name. Currently, the cinematic market doesn’t allow for mid-budget pictures to survive the onslaught of blockbusters and cheap horror features that arrive every week. Beirut is one of those pictures that avoided Netflix in favor of theatrical distribution; one hopes that such a choice will still be possible for films of its ilk. One wouldn’t use to call adult-oriented thrillers a sub-genre, but they are fading quickly. Beirut–and Hamm’s performance in it–is proof that pictures like it deserve a shot at larger audiences.