Movie Review: Beirut
The star of Mad Men brokers his movie star stubble and complex male charms in Beirut, a big-screen thriller where human drama is perpetually pushed out of the frame by the bulldozer of political urgency.
Starring: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Running time: 1 hr 49 mins
By Katherine Monk
They say it was the Paris of the Middle East, but Beirut hasn’t been the same since the 1975 Civil War, the 1982 Lebanon War with Israel, the 2006 Israeli conflict and the continuing terrorist attacks from a lengthening list of factions.
Not that it was ever truly stable. Lebanon’s capital city has been taken over more than a few times in its 5000-year history as a human settlement. Built and destroyed since history started keeping score, the seaside metropolis became fully Romanized by Pompey after he conquered the city in 64 BC. Muslim rule followed in 635 CE. Then Ottoman. And so it goes. Yet, for all the hard knocks endured by the eastern jewel of the Mediterranean, Beirut retains a tattered glam factor.
The same goes for Jon Hamm. The actor’s charisma doesn’t stem from his good looks as much as it grows out of his movie star chin in quarter-inch stubble. One of the few actors who doesn’t go for bad boy, but complex man, Hamm proved he could make magic with a finger of scotch in a cut-crystal tumbler as ad man Don Draper. In Beirut, he gets to double-fist it as Mason Skiles, an American diplomat caught in a simmering conflict ignited by Palestinian immigration.
…Beirut retains a tattered glam factor…. The same goes for Jon Hamm. The actor’s charisma doesn’t stem from his good looks as much as it grows out of his movie star chin in quarter-inch stubble.
The central figure in the latest script penned by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Identity) and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, The Wire), Mason is the very picture of ’70s intellectual liberalism. He’s married to a local Lebanese woman, and he’s trying to adopt a young orphaned refugee who works at his home. The film opens in 1973 Beirut, with Mason in his element, hosting a party and using his natural charms to make sure everyone gets along.
It feels familiar to see Hamm as the smart schmooze artist, but his diplomatic skill set is blown to pieces moments later, as the CIA tries to apprehend the boy, and a group of Palestinian terrorists show up at the same time — with the same goal. The kid, as it turns out, is the younger brother of an accomplice in the Munich tragedy the year before.
More than a decade later, we pick up Mason’s story again, but he’s not the same man. He now works as a labour negotiator. And he drinks. A lot. Beirut broke him, so when he gets a special request to go back on a special mission, he declines — until he finds out his old friend, and CIA chief, has been kidnapped. With every agent in the region in jeopardy, Mason gathers his courage and his latent kamikaze urges, and gets on board.
Things fall apart from the moment he lands, but the tougher things get, the better his chance at spiritual redemption. Yet, in this morass of perverted faith and twisted sermonizing, there’s no real salvation. There is only survival, and that’s why this movie is doomed on a pure emotional level. It can never deliver pure catharsis.
What it does offer is a vast palette of moral blur as Mason’s carefully built walls come falling down around him. Hovering over the rubble constantly visible in the background, director Anderson gives us a symbolic mirror of Mason’s ruined inner state, then forces him to crawl through it. Watching Hamm create and confront the demons is easily the film’s biggest strength because he’s embodying the whole region, and its endless conflicts in a single character.
Yet, the film explodes into little pieces when it comes to plot. Like all movies about the Middle East, things get all too confusing all too quickly. There are just so many players to keep track of, and so many conflicts among them, that it’s almost impossible to get a sense of the field and who’s playing which position.
Like all movies about the Middle East, things get all too confusing all too quickly.
Gilroy tries to keep the exposition meshed into the flow of dialogue, but it doesn’t always feel connected to character. It’s like the people are doing one thing, but the story is doing something else. Hamm and co-star Rosamund Pike don’t have the chemistry of a Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson, but that’s not their fault. It’s not in the script. The human drama is constantly pushed out of the frame by the political bulldozer.
On paper, that’s probably the most appropriate treatment for a movie about the Middle East’s endless troubles. On-screen, it adds up to a wasteland littered with talent, lacking a true sense of purpose. Like I said, perfect — and entirely unsatisfying.
Main photo: Rosamund Pike and Jon Hamm star in Beirut. Photo by Sife Eddine El Amine, courtesy of Bleeker Street.
THE EX-PRESS, April 13, 2018