“Beirut” review: Shrewdly realistic political thriller an antidote to blockbusters

It’s sometimes lamented, with justice, that Hollywood has quit making human-scaled entertainment for adults – films that occupy a middle ground between youth-oriented blockbusters and Oscar-mongering prestige.

Filmgoers who feel this lack may find some solace in Beirut, a period espionage thriller set against the backdrop of Lebanon just before its 1982 war with Israel. Which suggests a less stylish but also less preachy cousin to Steven Spielberg’s re-creation of the early Cold War in Bridge of Spies.

Beirut is directed by Brad Anderson, who has dabbled in everything. That from romantic comedies (Next Stop Wonderland) to psychological thrillers (The Machinist).

But as a personal statement it may belong more to its screenwriter and producer Tony Gilroy. He is a model Hollywood pro who has directed only a couple of films of his own. But works for the studios as a fixer to keep his hand in (he was involved in the widely reported re-shoots. That for the Star Wars prequel Rogue One).

Given this background, it’s no wonder Gilroy is fascinated with flim-flam men. Such as the anti-heroes of his legal drama Michael Clayton and his corporate espionage comedy Duplicity. As well as the former American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) in Beirut.

Slicksters tasked with keeping up appearances no matter what.

These characters share a gift of the gab that may serve to distract us from unpleasant truths. But in Gilroy’s eyes, they are also necessary to keep the wheels turning. “When the talking stops, the fighting starts,” Mason says in Beirut’s nearest approach to a thesis statement.

It makes sense, too, that Gilroy should team up with Hamm, who rose to fame through his TV role on Mad Men. But hasn’t since become a movie star. Perhaps because his keynote as an actor is weakness, masked by genuine but uneasy charm.

As a rising star in the Beirut of 1972, Mason is the perfect cocktail party guest. All smiles and easy patter (naturally, he also sports prominent sideburns, one of Hollywood’s most reliable period signifers).

But it doesn’t take long for the film to burst Mason’s bubble: for once, words fail him as violence erupts with consequences tragic for him on a personal level.

A decade later, he’s a washed-up drunk working in labor relations in New England when he’s summoned back to his old stomping ground. A former colleague in the CIA (Mark Pellegrino). He has been snatched off the street by a splinter group of hard-line Palestinians who have insisted Mason serve as negotiator.

Accepting his mission with reluctance, Mason again finds himself employed as a mediator between many sides, including Palestinians and Israelis.

But also his colleagues in the CIA, played by a line-up that includes Rosamund Pike. Again employing the poker face she used in Gone Girl, and Dean Norris, embodying beefy pragmatism in a context very different from his cop role in Breaking Bad.

Meanwhile, on the streets, the threat or reality of violence remains everywhere present. The exterior shots, actually filmed in Morocco, are full of fleeting juxtapositions that border on the surreal: A couple having their wedding photo taken against a background of rubble, or tanks crawling across a beach past brightly striped sun umbrellas. That with massive concrete apartment blocks in the distance and camels wandering by.

More shrewdly realistic than the average Hollywood political thriller. Beirut remains open to accusations of self-involvement, if not outright racism, in its privileging of an American point of view. Mason commands our sympathy throughout, while the “foreign” characters are menacing or inscrutable.

Ultimately, you might wonder if this is really a film about Middle Eastern politics at all. If this is merely a pretext for exploring how one middle-aged white guy negotiates his midlife crisis. Then again, is there any reason it can’t be both?

At the least, Anderson and Gilroy show that they’re aware of the problem, sardonically offering us two separate endings:

A classic Hollywood fade-out, and an epilogue that reminds us exactly how things went down subsequently in the real world.

The stakes in “Beirut” are high (a high-ranking official has been kidnapped, and everyone seems convinced that he’s going to spill all kinds of secrets). But Hamm lopes through the process without much conviction. A handful of dramatic scenes do allow the actor to show off his chops, but much of “Beirut” simply requires him to look sweaty and pissed off. The film shot during a Morocco summer, so that wasn’t a huge ask.

Anderson does add some style to the film, doing wonders with an indie-sized budget for a film that requires a specific period setting. “Beirut” renders its location as a gritty, dirty, complex twist of rubble and blown-out buildings. It’s wholly understandable that no one ever feels fully safe there. It’s that kind of inherent tension that “Beirut” could stand to mine, as the back half of the film speeds toward a conclusion that’s both unearned and inevitable. Still, it sets up an ending, that could spawn further Mason Stiles adventures, presumably new thrillers where he lucks into hefty drinks and even heftier missions.

INFO:

Rating: R (for language, some violence and a brief nude image.)
Genre: Drama
Directed By: Brad Anderson
Stars: Jon Hamm, Jay Potter, Khalid Benchagra
Written By: Tony Gilroy
In Theaters: Apr 11, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Jul 3, 2018
Runtime: 110 minutes
Studio: Bleecker Street

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR BEIRUT

Demetrios Matheou
Tony Gilroy’s script is intricate and intelligent, with an appropriately cynical view of US foreign relations. And Hamm makes hay with his best role since Mad Men.

Ed Potton
At times it feels like a slightly less expensive Munich, or Homeland in artificial fabrics. Yet the performances are uniformly gritty and the script by Tony Gilroy does a nice job of balancing geopolitical nous with brisk storytelling.

Phil Hoad
Despite possessing unusually detailed context for a thriller, it’s a bit like diplomatic efforts in the region: the same old story.

Jake Wilson
As a personal statement it may belong more to its screenwriter and producer, Tony Gilroy…More shrewdly realistic than the average Hollywood political thriller, Beirut remains open to accusations of self-involvement.

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