If you haven’t brushed up on your Middle Eastern history, after watching this film you’ll think the Berlin Wall drama will feel like a playground scuffle in comparison.
“Beirut” is the latest film from veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Duplicity”) and is a period piece from what I personally see as a fairly unexplored time and place in Western cinema: the cut-throat Lebanese civil war of the 1980s, where blockades, military camps and strike forces were the only things separating religious militant factions and the threat of all-out guerilla warfare between the diverse cultures that inhabited the country. This film does a serviceable job at depicting the crisis and juxtaposing it with the relatively peaceful times of the decade prior.
The film opens in the 1970s, where diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) and his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti) are happy with their lavish lifestyle, their home which is the center of politically-charged cocktail parties and their basically-adopted son Karim (Idir Chender), who was plucked off the streets and molded to become an intelligent, successful man. Skiles has many friends, including his co-worker Cal (Mark Pellegrino) and wife Alice (Kate Fleetwood), and everything seems to be going smoothly.
However, there’s just one problem: Skiles discovers at one of their parties that Karim is the younger brother of Rami Rajal (Ben Affan), a terrorist linked to the 1972 Munich massacre. Rami invades the party, kills Skiles’ wife and abducts Karim, indoctrinating him into his militia group.
Cut to 10 years later. Skiles is back stateside, a drunk hasbeen moderating workers’ union hearings when, all of a sudden, his past comes flooding back to him in the form of a letter from the government. Skiles is called back at the specific request of a terrorist organization to mediate a hostage situation. The hostage? His old friend Cal. And the leader of the terrorist group? Karim, now a self-made man, if you will, hellbent on freeing his murderous brother from —assumedly — Israeli holding.
Overcome with emotion and trying to keep himself together, Skiles must figure out who he can trust to make sure his friend is safe, whether it be Cal’s new co-worker Agent Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), the straight-laced Colonel Ruzak (Shea Whigham) or State Department veteran Donald Gaines (Dean Norris)
“Beirut” definitely echoes the style of filmmaking of its time, not too flashy and more reliant on clear, tense espionage drama to fulfill the raising stakes, and it’s very satisfying to see the intricate details, power plays and emotional rollercoasters of a hostage negotiation.
Additionally, Hamm leads with a powerful performance as a convincing drunk without being too over-the-top. Another note-worthy performance is Idir Chender, who commands the screen as a threatening but deep down sentimental leader who simply wishes to have the only family he has left in the world…even if that family is wanted in several countries.
“Beirut” has a kind of “Sicario” vibe to it, as it delves into the behind-the-scenes nature of combating terrorism as well as depict the violent nature of war tactics. The film certainly captures a dreary atmosphere and builds a world that Skiles must learn to adapt to. The story itself does feel a tad like it would fit just as well on a smaller screen, but the star power and visual effects bring it up to par for the silver screen.
One minor plot point I will gripe on is how the story rushes Skiles into making a major decision to return to Lebanon so quickly. In the beginning of the film, after the tragedy that occurs Skiles says he would never return again, wishing to never relive the moments that occurred. He returns to Beirut after one conversation with a random guy at a bar. I feel that a little more time could have been used for him to contemplate his decision.
Other than minor points, “Beirut” is a really solid, old-fashioned espionage drama with a clear style and some great performances. If you miss this film on the big screen, I can definitely recommend this on DVD.
Photo courtesy Bleecker Street