(2018—Director: Brad Anderson)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
One would think, in a medium that requires an artist to engage and thrill their audience for around 100 minutes, that the “thriller” genre would have it easy. The topic of espionage, furthermore, fascinates most who do not take part in it as a profession. Espionage thrillers, therefore, should have no problem reaching a reasonable threshold of watchability. Beirut, scripted by Tony Gilroy and directed by Brad Anderson, misses that goal more often than it barely touches it. When it does touch it, stars Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike take most of the credit.
Ask low-level negotiator and alcoholic Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) where he would not travel. Mason would say that he would never return to Beirut, Lebanon, even if it was the last place on Earth. A decade earlier in 1972, he served as an American diplomat in Beirut and had even married a woman named Nadia (Leïla Bekhti). That all ended at a party at the American embassy, when a notorious terrorist and his outfit arrived, guns blazing, to retrieve his younger brother, a presumed orphan whom Mason and Nadia had taken in as their ward. At the end of the evening, the terrorist would remain at large with his younger brother by his side and Mason would resign to his new life as a drunken widower back in the States.
Meanwhile, the younger brother, Karim Abu Rajal (Idir Chender), grows up and become a terrorist leader of his own. Karim kidnaps Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), Mason’s friend and colleague who had remained stationed in Beirut even after Mason departed. Cal asks for Mason in particular to negotiate his release, in exchange for the release of Karim’s older brother, who has disappeared and has likely been imprisoned by another faction. With the help of the American embassy and undercover CIA field agent Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), Mason must stay alive and sober to see through to Cal’s freedom.
As an espionage thriller, Beirut astounds in its struggle to engage viewers with compelling stakes, despite setting up most of the necessary pieces to the puzzle. The brisk opening sequence, set at the fateful 1972 party in Beirut’s American embassy, tasks itself with establishing not just the geo-political context, but Mason’s relationships with his wife Nadia and the boy Karim. As the story progresses, however, it becomes apparent how weakly formed each piece is. The fictional kidnapping and negotiation scheme overall is an American-centered side quest to the more harrowing Lebanese Civil War, which devastated Beirut between Mason’s two stays there. Mason and Nadia get one cute but short husband-and-wife exchange in the kitchen during the opening embassy party before her untimely death—a tragedy that barely registers on paper.
Worst of all, Beirut fails to capitalize on the character of Karim, whose bloody entrance as an adult terrorist leader comprises one of the film’s few memorable and shocking pivots. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay could have given French actor Idir Chender a meaty role as an orphan turned terrorist, which could then couple with the tragic death of Mason’s wife for maximum emotional resonance. Instead, Gilroy’s script reduces Karim’s adult incarnation to just a determined captor whose past ties with Mason give him too few hints of regret.
Despite the weak material, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike’s performances do succeed in carrying the story along. Hamm continues to search for his big-screen groove after his eight-year tenure on AMC’s Mad Men. As Mason Skiles, Hamm maintains a thin line between determined, easy-going negotiator and pitiful, drunk widower. Pike, meanwhile, strives to find projects that would return her to the Oscar ceremony like 2014’s Gone Girl did. Her sturdy, persevering demeanor is consistent from project to project, including here, in such a way that I worry that complacency could set in. Pike has demonstrated the personality of a dedicated character actor, but her project choices spell the ambitions of a potential leading lady.
Beirut may end up lingering in my mind because of Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. The espionage thriller falls short of becoming its own enjoyable re-watch for all audiences. Instead, it becomes a case study involving a male television star, feeling for his niche on the big screen, and a female cinema presence who dips in and out of relevance and acclaim too often to meet a perceived desire for more substantial success. Where Hamm and Pike may have preferred a step up, Beirut hands them an extended walkway. Whether they come across a step up or a step down at the end of that hopefully short walkway is entirely up to them.
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
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