THE HEART OF CONFLICT
BEIRUT, a tense, moodily stylish political thriller set in 1982 amid the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war, stars Jon Hamm as a former US diplomat who, 10 years after leaving the country in the wake of personal tragedy, is called back to negotiate for the release of one of his erstwhile colleagues, a CIA operative who has been taken hostage by one of the area’s myriad and evermetastasising factions.
Directed by Brad Anderson from a script by Tony Gilroy, Beirut is a coherent story in constant forward motion.
By the time Hamm’s Mason Skiles is pulled back into duty, he has been working in the relatively sedate world of labour-management mediation in Boston. In those sequences, Hamm affects the sodden alcoholic dejection of Paul Newman in The Verdict. That same sense of benumbed fatalism follows him to the film’s title city, where Christians, Muslims, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Israel and Syria – with America and the USSR hovering in close range – are engaged in a heavily armed game of cat-and-mouse that has reduced a flourishing urban centre to a wary, wrecked battleground.
Loosely based on the abduction of CIA station chief William Buckley by Hezbollah in 1984, Beirut never explicitly invokes the name of that thenemerging group. Rather, it plays like a prequel to the grievous events that would engulf the Middle East during that decade and beyond, as political interests and their proxies collided with cynical and often tragic results. With the exception of Skiles, who continues to harbour frayed hope for dealmaking, even though he knows better, very few players in Beirut are conventionally sympathetic – including the American Foreign Service lifers who haven’t bothered to learn Arabic while embedding in the region. Their dismissive attitude is summed up in Skiles’s description of Lebanon in an early sequence as a “boarding house without a landlord”, where the tenants are “bound only by their shared talent for betrayal”.
Some public-interest groups have already expressed outrage at the film, including that it reduces Lebanese and Middle Eastern characters to stereotypes.
Despite that, Beirut is an engaging, well-crafted thriller, offering a showcase not just for Hamm, but for Rosamund Pike (playing his levelheaded handler) and an ensemble of terrific character actors, including
Dean Norris, Shea Whigham and Larry Pine. Reaching back to John le Carré for its worldweary portrayal of tradecraft, Beirut is a crafty drama. – Washington Post