A U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm) flees Lebanon in 1972 after a tragic incident at his home. Ten years later, he is called back to war-torn Beirut by CIA operative (Rosamund Pike) to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind. (Formerly titled High Wire Act)
Beirut is, without a doubt, an imperfect thriller. The narrative is at times too dense, some aspects of the ending are too pat, and there are some internal inconsistencies the movie never explains. But, damn, is it good to watch a movie that expects the audience to pay attention and that doesn't pander to the least common denominator. Back in the 1970s, many thrillers were like this, with suspense developing out of the story rather than grafted on top via preposterous action sequences. And, although those kinds of movies have their place, they have almost entirely supplanted films like Beirut which, although still viable for popcorn-munchers, are a shade more serious (without becoming pretentious).
The movie's prologue, which transpires in 1972, introduces us to charismatic, good-natured diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), whose duties in Lebanon require that he balance relations with the locals, Israel, and the PLO. One night, when he's hosting a party, a group of gunmen storm his home, killing his wife (Leila Bekhti) and kidnapping Karim, the 13-year old Mason is planning to adopt. Karim's terrorist brother, Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), is behind the attack.
The main story transpires ten years later. Mason, a burnt-out drunk, is living a meaningless life as a labor mediator when the government comes calling. An offer he can't refuse has Mason board a flight from Boston to Lebanon, where he learns that everything has changed. He is greeted by three officials with questionable motives: Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), and Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham). One of their co-workers, Cal Riley (Mark Pelligrino), has been kidnapped and his captors, members of a splinter Palestinian terrorist group, have specifically requested that Mason act as the negotiator/go-between. The reason becomes clear as people from Mason's past, including Karim and Abu Rajal, resurface.
As is often the case with spy thrillers, whether they transpire in Cold War Berlin or some more exotic locale (such as civil war-torn Lebanon), the chief pleasure is observing how the hero, through his superior skill, knowledge, and training, navigates a minefield of seemingly-unsolvable complexity and stays a step ahead of his adversaries (and, on some occasions, his allies). Movies of this sort don't demand much in the way of physicality from the hero but they require that he be mentally tough. Mason fits the type - when he's required to run, he keeps yelling for the leader to slow down so he can keep pace, but he overcomes alcoholism and rust sufficiently to complete the mission. The ending is overscripted but satisfying nonetheless.
Were it not for Mad Men, Jon Hamm might be considered a good-looking character actor. His stint in the popular TV series has allowed him to take on leading roles and this is one of his best to-date. Hamm presents Mason as smart and capable, but he's also a loose canon and sometimes reckless to a fault. There's a reason for this: he's expendable, knows he's expendable, and doesn't particularly care. His carefree approach to life ended ten years ago and there's often a haunted look in his eyes. The movie is about redemption - something made evident in a grim scene where he confronts Cal's wife, who was once one of his closest friends.
Brad Anderson (the one-time indie filmmaker who has morphed into an accomplished television director) helms with a sure hand, ratcheting up tension at the right moments while keeping things moving. The film doesn't rocket along at a Bourne-like breakneck pace but neither does it crawl like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It finds a happy medium while giving us a character we can root for and a scenario we're interested in.
Sadly, the box office for Beirut will likely show what distributor Bleecker Street suspects - that audiences aren't much interested in this story. It's not a sequel. It's rooted in a true historical situation that works better for those with at least a cursory understanding of the real-life situation (although Mason tries to explain things in an early, awkward expository monologue). It doesn't feature any superheroes. And it penalizes those who aren't strictly paying attention to the story. For me, these are all good things and help tilt the movie into the "recommend" category. Beirut held my attention and, although it's not among Tony Gilroy's top scripts, it's solid enough to invest a couple of hours watching.