Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Shea Whigham, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Idir Chender, Larry Pine, Hicham Ouraqa, Leïla Bekhti
MPAA Rating: (for language, some violence and a brief nude image)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 4/11/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 10, 2018
Politics are at the core of Beirut, a thriller set during the civil war in Lebanon. It's a fictional story of hostage negotiation, but Tony Gilroy's screenplay is filled with so many backroom deals, backchannel talks, and instances of parties giving and receiving the runaround that the story feels like it could have happened. Everybody wants something here, and there's a sense that everyone is playing their own political game or trying to accomplish some personal agenda. The abduction of a United States diplomat provides the perfect opportunity for those games to be played and to work toward those agendas.
This, of course, means that it's difficult to tell who can be trusted in this process. Indeed, one could argue that the entire movie is about broken trust. It opens with a prologue set a few years before the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a diplomat living and working in the U.S. embassy in Beirut, offers a room filled with elite guests his pragmatic views of the city and the country. It's a place where almost two thousand years of ethnic and religious fighting has come to an impasse, if only because of a successful economy that allows people to live normal, comfortable lives. It is, one supposes, easier to live next door to someone who, you have been told, is supposed to be your enemy when neither of you wants what the other person possesses.
The background of the civil war appears to be an intentional gap in the movie's story. What we learn is that Palestinian refugees have been arriving in Lebanon. This has opened up some of the old thinking, with Christians and Jews seeing a threat to their economic and political stability. The Palestinians, obviously, have their own cause, aimed at the state of Israel, which they believe is rightly theirs.
The movie itself doesn't take a side here, mainly because its own goals have little to do with understanding the conflict. The fighting is only a backdrop for Mason's story, which begins with the death of his wife (played by Leïla Bekhti) after an attack on the embassy. The couple had taken in a Palestinian refugee, a 12-year-old boy whose older brother, unknown to Mason, was a participant in the massacre at the recent Munich Olympics. While Mason tries to protect the boy from American and Israeli strong-arming, the elder brother and some accomplices arrive with automatic weapons. The boy is taken, and Mason's wife is shot in the crossfire between one of the attackers and Mason's friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino), a CIA agent.
Ten years later, Mason is a professional mediator and an alcoholic. Cal, whom Mason hasn't spoken to since leaving Beirut a decade ago, has been captured by a rogue Palestinian militia, and the State Department wants Mason to negotiate Cal's release. His handlers in the now-war-torn Beirut include Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), another CIA operative, and some State Department officials, primarily Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris).
Beirut is broken, divided into east and west sections along religious lines. Mason is broken, too, still in mourning and trying to drink away his misery. Whether we buy this connection between a man and the city/country of which he isn't a part isn't entirely crucial to appreciating the story, but it is worth noting that Gilroy and director Brad Anderson have provided this convenient, rather flippant link as a sort of shortcut to establishing both the character and the conflict.
More intriguing, though, is how the story serves as a critique of the multiple ways in which trust has been broken between these characters and within their own ways of looking at the world. If Mason ever believed that his work with the U.S. government in Lebanon could have helped the situation in the country, that faith in the system is pretty much ended once he sees the ravages of the civil war—the window from his hotel, scathed and scorched by artillery fire, looking over the ruins of the city.
The 12-year-old boy from the prologue has grown into Karim (Idir Chender), Cal's abductor, who says he wasn't a terrorist "that day," when his brother Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa) violently took him from the embassy. Karim's goal is secure his older brother's release from whatever country is holding him. Both he and Mason suspect Israel.
Gilroy's screenplay offers a few answers, most of them plot-related. It's more effective in raising questions, such as the United States' actual position on Lebanon, when each of those State Department officials appears to have a different idea about how things should play out, and whether the Israeli government, in this situation, is an ally or only pretending as far as the game allows them to achieve their own goals. The movie's own position is that such political games can only end in misery.
Beirut is smart and cynical in the way it reveals the motives and shows the consequences of these political maneuvers. What's missing is a genuine sense of history—of actually helping us to understand the conflict in the background, instead of simply using it as the backdrop for its winding and weaving plot. The movie is playing its own game of sorts, and the real-world stakes seem far more consequential than the ones within the movie's bubble.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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