Wednesday, April 11, 2018

In Theaters: BEIRUT (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Tony Gilroy. Cast: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Mark Pellegrino, Larry Pine, Jonny Coyne, Douglas Hodge, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Idir Chender, Kate Fleetwood, Leila Bekhti, Hicham Ouraqa, Ahmed Said Arie, Sonia Okacha, Mohammed Attougui. (R, 109 mins)

At the risk of sounding wistful or cliched, BEIRUT is the kind of movie you don't see in theaters very often these days. It's a smartly-written, mid-budget political thriller whose target audience is middle-aged adults. It's a star vehicle for Jon Hamm, whose place in pop culture history is cemented thanks to MAD MEN but who hasn't really had a breakout leading role on the big screen, instead standing out in supporting roles in films like THE TOWN and BABY DRIVER. With Hamm's biggest success being on TV and SESSION 9 and THE MACHINIST director Brad Anderson settling comfortably into hired-gun TV journeyman mode in recent years (FRINGE, TREME, BOARDWALK EMPIRE), BEIRUT almost feels like the kind of period piece project that's designed more for a limited series on HBO, FX, or Netflix. On one hand, that's a depressing commentary on the changing landscape of mainstream moviegoing over the last couple of decades that a solid piece of suspenseful escapism like BEIRUT seems like a pleasant surprise. However, in the capable hands of veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the BOURNE series, MICHAEL CLAYTON, and most recently, ROGUE ONE, for which he also handled the reshoots when director Gareth Edwards was relieved of his duties), BEIRUT, which does share a few core plot ideas with 2000's Gilroy-scripted PROOF OF LIFE, is a riveting thriller about the delicate nature of political gamesmanship and double-crossing diplomacy making an already volatile region even more dangerous and unpredictable.

Opening in 1972, Mason Skiles (Hamm) has a pretty cushy gig as a US diplomat based in Beirut. He's a smooth negotiator and spends most of his time schmoozing and entertaining visiting politicians and intellectuals. He and his wife Nadia (Leila Bakhti) are hosting a dinner party when his State Department buddy Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) shows up with CIA officials who want to haul in Karim, a 13-year-old Palestinian orphan the Skileses are currently sponsoring and hope to adopt, for questioning. Skiles was unaware that Karim had an older brother, Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), who is being hunted by Mossad agents for his role in the Munich massacre that killed eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team. Abu Rajal has been in contact with his little brother, and Cal has photographic evidence. As Skiles attempts to placate the agents with as little disruption to his party as possible, Abu Rajal and his men storm Skiles' house, whisk Karim away, with Nadia among those killed in the ensuing skirmish.

Cut to 1982, and widower Skiles is an alcoholic wreck, living in Boston and skating by as a mediator on various local union disputes as something to do during the day until he can get to the bar in the evening. He's summoned by the State Department and told he's needed in a civil war-torn Beirut. He's offered $6500 and a passport and is instructed to be on a flight in six hours. Once on the ground in Beirut, everyone--State Department guys Gary Ruzek (Shea Whigham) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), and glad-handing US politician Frank Shalen (Larry Pine)--hems and haws about why he's there and why he's been provided with CIA handler Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) to babysit him. Skiles has been requested by name to lead the negotiation to release a kidnapped Cal, who's being held by a splinter group of the PLO. A meet is arranged and Skiles comes face to face with the group's leader, a now-grown Karim (Idir Chender), who's threatening to kill Cal if Israel doesn't turn over his brother in exchange for Cal, and he knows Skiles is the only negotiator sharp enough to get it done. Skiles meets with multiple Israeli officials who agree to look into Abu Rajal's whereabouts and all come back with the same story: "We don't have him." Things get even more complicated, forcing Skiles to go rogue when Ruzek and Gaines reveal their true motive: making sure Cal, who's been based in Beirut for 13 years and is a walking encyclopedia of classified intel, doesn't talk about the things he knows, both on and off the books.

Given Gilroy's expertise in screenwriting, the cynical BEIRUT does a good job of keeping the copious exposition of the various Middle East conflicts as concise and succinct as possible. It also gets some terrific location work from Tangier doubling as Beirut, with some chilling atmosphere throughout as we see the almost nonchalant, business-as-usual reaction of citizens when guns and bombs go off around them. Hamm displays enough gravitas to convey Skiles' cut-the-shit attitude once he figures out that Ruzek and Gaines consider Cal expendable, even if "Mason Skiles" is a name that could only exist in a Hollywood screenplay. Likewise, we of course get the obligatory scene where the drunkard hero finally his shit together and pours all of his booze down the drain while regarding his aging visage in the mirror and pondering What I've Become, but Gilroy and Anderson aren't making a documentary here. They do, however, incorporate actual events and historical elements into a fictional story that's tense, fast-paced, and well-acted by its cast. Pike, in her second terrorism thriller in the last month after the inexplicably dance-crazed 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE, does what she can with an underwritten role (Sandy is dismissed by Gaines as a "skirt," but then Pike still isn't given that much to do other than yell at Skiles when he needs a kick in the ass), but Norris is perfectly cast as a duplicitous, untrustworthy dick with an Oscar-caliber rug, while Whigham is at his sneering best, barely tolerating Skiles' meddlesome involvement in the entire negotiation process. But BEIRUT is Jon Hamm's show from start to finish, and he proves himself a capable leading man who probably would've been better served by Hollywood movie studios if he was around in the '70s and '80s. He's displayed a gift for comedy and proven his versatility in supporting roles and ensemble feature films, and BEIRUT leaves no doubt that he can carry a movie but it's an anomaly in today's distribution model that declares everything a disappointment if it doesn't make $100 million out of the gate. BEIRUT is the kind of mid-range film that used to turn into a word-of-mouth sleeper hit in April or September and maybe make $25-$30 million and everyone would be happy. But those days are gone. It's not going to make a ton of money, but it'll enjoy a long life on streaming and cable, acquiring fans shocked that they'd never heard of it before.

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