Jon Hamm as Mason Skiles
Rosamund Pike as Sandy Crowder
Mark Pellegrino as Cal
Dean Norris as Donald Gaines
Shea Whigham as Gary Ruzak
“Beirut”, the movie, as the name implies, opens in Beirut Lebanon circa the 1970s with Mason Skiles ( actor Jon Hamm of the TV show “Mad Men” fame) making an analogy about Beirut, comparing it to “ a boarding house without a landlord”. It’s a statement that will surely inflame many from the region and draw criticism from some viewers. In fact, in just the few days that the movie has been out, there has been an outcry that the movie paints a stereotypical portrait of the Middle East and of Arabs in general.
These complaints are not without merit however. Just as some service members cannot watch a war movie without commenting on the grievous discrepancies with it, anyone who has been to Beirut any time from 1970 to present day will likely have some as well. This is due in part to the movie being filmed in Morocco and no Lebanese actors being used in the production of the movie. While some of this may be due to logistical constraints, as current day Beirut doesn’t look like it did in the 1980’s obviously, filming there apparently was not an option for the Director, Brad Anderson, and the underscoring of the country itself culturally, may have been intentional by writer Tony Gilroy. It could be argued that this helps the viewer to focus on the story and more precisely, the star, Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), as this might be his best leading role to date. Time will tell, as I think there is more in Jon Hamm’s talent tank than is witnessed in Beirut, so don’t take that as a negative comment about his performance.
The movie opens with US Diplomat Mason Skiles doing the “grip and grin” at what is a typical Embassy party at Mason’s home. All the important people of the region are present, US Congressmen, representatives from the PLO and other factions and Mason is being the consummate host by providing the social lubrication and commentary needed to keep things moving along. Shortly into this introduction to the party we are introduced to Karim, a 13-year-old ward of Mason’s family and his friend and co-worker Cal, played by Mark Pelligrino. Cal of course has arrived and is clearly flustered, as he is the bearer of bad news. It is revealed that Karim ( Idir Chender) has an older brother who happens to be a terrorist and not just any terrorist, but the mastermind behind the Munich Olympic attack, and he is in contact with Karim.
For those old enough or studied enough to know the details of this real world incident, you will soon discover that other similar incidents are played out in the story that actually occurred in Beirut, but are quickly moved past. For the history buffs, they may pick up on these subtle similarities in the story but it will very likely never cause pause for the casual viewer to ponder it. However, it does cause the educated viewer to wonder if this was intentional writing by Tony Gilroy or just mere coincidence in a story line that is very plausible for a period piece such as this. As Mason’s friend Cal explains this information to him, it becomes clear that he and others are there to take Karim into custody. Mason’s response is as would be expected from a man who considers Karim to be as close as family, if not his son. As this is playing out, Karim’s brother’s men attack the party and take Karim and Mason’s wife is taken hostage as they try to escape. In the ensuing madness, Mason is pleading with a terrorist who has his wife, to take him instead. As the other terrorists begin to flee the scene, Mason’s friend Cal, takes aim on the terrorist, but he doesn’t quiet have a clear shot. As the terrorist decides to let Mason’s wife go, so he can escape, Cal gets a clean shot and shoots the terrorist. However, in the terrorists death throws, he squeezes the trigger on the submachine gun he is carrying and stray rounds hit Mason’s wife, killing her.
Fast-forward ten years later to 1982 and we find Mason is now a raging alcoholic and working labor disputes in Boston with one other employee. It is clear he has been on a downward spiral in these last ten years and is worse for wear and it shows. Mason is approached while in a bar by an old acquaintance and it is quickly revealed that he is wanted back in Beirut, so much so, that he is handed a first class ticket, a passport and $6,500.00 dollars with six hours to decide. While initially reluctant to do it, we next see him passed out in an airplane in first class and arriving in Lebanon to an entirely different country than he remembers. If the country was in flux in 1972, it is now in total chaos in 1982 ,with everyone in the region struggling for control, from the Christian and Muslim militias to the Israelis and the PLO. Having been brought over to give a lecture at a university as the reason for being in Beirut, Mason is quickly whisked away by people from the US Embassy after arriving at his war torn hotel. Mason soon finds himself at the US Ambassadors’ house and alone in a room with all the power brokers. At this point Mason knows something is afoot and cuts to the chase,
“What the f*ck is going on? I have two spies, the Ambassador, the Department of State and the White house sitting here. Unless the President walks through those doors next, how about someone telling me who is in charge and why the f*ck I am here?”
Mason learns that the now grown Karim has taken Cal, who happens to be in the CIA, hostage. At this point in the movie we meet Gary Ruzak ( Shea Whigham), Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), The US Ambassador ( Larry Pine), and Sandy Crowder ( Rosamund Pike). All figure prominently in the movie from here on out, but the person that Mason, a seasoned and jaded Diplomat as well as a negotiator, finds his CIA handler, Sandy Crowder, to be the most trustworthy out of all of them. Mason and Sandy are concerned with getting their friend Cal back, while it becomes obvious that the others are maneuvering and using the situation to move their own agendas forward.
Up to this point, all of this might seem like standard fare for most movies in this genre. However, “Beirut” harkens back to old films of International Diplomacy and the political thrillers from the 70’s and 80’s with a vibe that isn’t seen often in today’s movies. This isn’t a spoon fed, action packed shoot ‘em up like the Jason Bourne movies, which incidentally Gilroy wrote the roles for. Instead, Gilroy created a role for Jon Hamm that plays to his strengths, albeit, it feels like Hamm isn’t being challenged enough. Jon Hamm’s character has moments where we see the acting we have come to expect from him rise to the surface; he truly looks like a beaten down and tired man who has the weight of his wife’s death and a failed career hanging over his head. But it doesn’t feel like it was enough to push him out of his comfort zone or that you get enough of those moments when he turns the brilliance on, it leaves you wanting to see more of it. Make no mistake, this is an adult movie, written for adults and not the teenage crowd.
It’s a complex thinking mans movie, that while fiction, is based in enough reality (and 80’s reality at that) to make it feel grounded in its unfolding of the story and eventual outcome. Because of that, some viewers may leave the theater with the feeling that it was anti climatic in the end, but that’s how these things tend to end in the real world. This is further brought to the viewers attention as the movie ends as real world news clips are played from the period that cover further historical events that happened in the region, all with a similar ending as the movie itself. “Beirut” clearly depicts the battlefield that it once was in the 80s, with people all trying to control the region for all their own reasons.
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