THE HEART OF CON­FLICT

Saturday Star - - FILM - MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN

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

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