Beirut is a period piece political thriller that doesn’t need to be period and is weirdly unconcerned with how its politics read in 2018. With a script by Tony Gilroy (of the Bourne franchise, Rogue One’s infamous reshoots, and, most importantly, THE CUTTING EDGE), and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist), it’s a good-looking film that calls back to the 1970s heyday of political thrillers, before that was just a tonal beat for action movies. Jon Hamm stars as Mason Skiles, a US diplomat and negotiator who gets caught up in mid-civil-war politics in Lebanon. Hamm carries the movie—and it’s amazing he has not been given more opportunities in film to work as an actual leading man—but that Lebanese setting opens the door to some complicated stuff Beirut would really rather not deal with.
The opening is set in the early 1970s, post-Munich massacre but pre-Lebanese civil war. Skiles is living it up in Beirut, “the Paris of the Middle East”, along with his wife, and they are a dashing and cosmopolitan couple abroad. But violence, fueled by Israeli/Palestinian tension, is sweeping into Lebanon, and soon Skiles is back in the US, shattered and sunk into alcoholism. Ten years later, he’s working as a union negotiator in Boston when he is summoned back to Beirut to deal with a hostage crisis, personally requested by the terrorists who kidnapped an old embassy colleague of his.
Does this sound complicated? It’s really not. Gilroy can write movies like this is in his sleep by now, and Beirut is a conventional political thriller that isn’t interested in engaging with any complex real-world issues or ramifications (an ending montage detailing the devastation of Beirut is as close as it gets). Beirut is a throwback in style, sure, with stylish direction from Anderson that isn’t interested in flash or quick cuts but instead just good old-fashioned composition and interesting angles. But it’s also a throwback in tone, with a story and a hero that is more le Carré than Clancy, and Hamm carries that extremely well. He’s made for roles like this, and despite a functioning-alcoholic kinship with Don Draper, there is none of Draper in this performance. Hamm is really, really good, and Beirut is worth watching just for his performance. (Rosamund Pike is also good as his CIA handler, and there is a low-ley Bogey & Bacall vibe between Hamm and Pike that another filmmaker should explore in another film.)
It’s just that pesky insistence on the real world to butt in that brings it down. For a movie called “Beirut” and set in the Lebanese civil war, there is precious little of that reality in the movie. Beirut is concerned with the embassy, with the shifty CIA agents and White House operatives whose competing agendas make Skiles’ job even harder. Israeli and Middle Eastern characters are largely two-dimensional stereotypes, and the Lebanese, whose home is represented as destroyed by these rival agendas? Basically a non-entity. I’m just not sure why Beirut has to be “Beirut”. The story is Skiles and his history with a place and a person, and the various political interests he has to navigate in order to do his job. That could be any time, any place. Setting this during the Lebanese civil war opens a bunch of doors the filmmakers aren’t actually interested in. But if you’re just looking at it as a star vehicle for Jon Hamm, Beirut more than satisfies.