I’ll fully admit that for decades, I have been a sucker for thrillers steeped in real-world political intrigue, whether the events at the heart of the story being told are pulled from actual events or not. From a screenplay by Tony Gilroy (the writer of Michael Clayton; he has also contributed something to all of the Jason Bourne movies), comes Beirut, about a former U.S. diplomat who is dragged back to the country he used to call home by the CIA in order to negotiate the release of one of their most vital operatives, who also happens to be an old friend.
Directed by one of my favorite and most versatile directors, Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian), the movie may not be based on actual events but a great deal of it feels as if it might have been, and the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to use that authenticity to propel the drama and life-or-death stakes.
Jon Hamm plays diplomat Mason Skiles, and as the film opens in 1972, he and his wife are hosting a big dinner party with invited guests from all religious and government facets represented in Lebanon at the time. The Jews, Muslims and Christians may be sitting in different corners of his home, but at least they’re sitting under the same roof, which Mason sees as a sign that all parties are willing to come together for peace talks at some point. Mason is a negotiator, a man who understands how to deal in tense situations, and he’s prepared to put in the time and effort to help in the region. But when a tragedy befalls both Mason and the peace process, he leaves for America vowing never to return.
Ten years have passed, and Mason is now a hired gun for smaller-scale negotiations, such as between a union and manufacturers. He’s also become something of a boozehound, and Hamm does a remarkable job playing the role of a (usually) functional alcoholic. Out of nowhere, he is approached to “give a speech” back in Lebanon and given a stack of cash for his troubles. But when he arrives in Beirut, he immediately notices how much has changed, how many buildings are damaged or demolished from a decade of car bombs and other means of war. He meets CIA operatives Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), Donald Gaines (Dean Norris) and Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) and is told that his old friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) has been kidnapped and that the hostage takers have asked for Mason by name.
Director Anderson and his team do impressive work capturing the energy, tension and danger of a city under constant threat of violence. And the way Beirut weaves various hijackings, embassy bombings and other terrorist events into its story and characters brings the fictional elements to life. I also appreciated that the story doesn’t insult us by attempting any type of real romantic involvement between Hamm and Pike, thus boring us with a wedged-in love story. This is a film that moves through its story like a trained professional with an unwavering eye that stays on target.
There’s a bit more intrigue around the other CIA agents in Beirut than there needs to be, but when Gilroy and Anderson stick to Mason and Sandy, things stay interesting. I especially liked the level of detail shown each time the well-guarded Mason manages to sneak (or get lured) away from his handlers to speak privately with the kidnappers, who want him involved for a very specific purpose that isn’t that tough to figure out. The filmmakers don’t attempt to make sense of what was going on in the region at the time, but they do find ways to convey a sense of the functioning confusion, as well as America’s diplomatic status with the various players, and why some parties trust us or don’t. Beirut is a hornet’s nest of a film, but one that delivers on an emotional level as well as providing a rare glimpse into tools and weapons of U.S. diplomacy.