A world-weary, hard-drinking former American diplomat tries to save his friend — and himself — amid a tangle of intrigue in ‘Beirut’

April 30, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 30, 2018

Director Brad Anderson’s new feature, Beirut, is a taut drama set in the war-torn capital of Lebanon.

The movie opens at a lavish reception for a visiting U.S. congressman hosted by American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) and his Lebanese wife, Nadia (Leïla Bekhti), at their lovely villa overlooking Beirut. The party is subject to a pair of interruptions, one minor and one life-shattering.

First, a colleague tells Skiles that intelligence officials want to question the couple’s 13-year-old ward, Karim, who turns out to be the younger brother of a Palestinian bomb-maker who helped plan the raid of the Israeli quarters at the Munich Olympic Games. Rami (Ben Affan) is eager to renew familial bonds, and naturally, he has no reservations about using force. When Rami’s confederates invade the Skiles household to reunite the siblings, Nadia is fatally shot and killed.

The story picks up a decade later, in 1982. Skiles is now an alcoholic New England labor negotiator whose two-man firm is rapidly losing men. He never thought he’d return to Lebanon, but when a former client hands him a passport and a first-class ticket for a flight to Beirut that departs in a few hours, the dissolute former diplomat answers the call.

Skiles has been summoned to deliver a speech at American University in lieu of a presenter who’s dropped out at the last minute. But that’s merely a cover story for the real purpose of his trip: An old friend, Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), has been abducted by Palestinians, and the kidnappers have specifically asked Skiles to broker his release.

Riley, the CIA’s No. 2 supervisor for a major operations hub in the Middle East, is being held by a radical Palestine Liberation Organization splinter group. The faction is led by a now-grown Karim (Idir Chender), who proposes a simple trade: Hand Rami over to Karim in return for Riley’s freedom. But there’s a major problem: The Americans don’t have Rami. Moreover, the Israelis — who are hostile toward the PLO generally and have a burning hatred for Rami — also disclaim any knowledge of the terrorist’s whereabouts.

The world-weary Skiles attempts to figure out this seemingly insoluble puzzle along with a trio of Americans: Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham), a Washington-based spook; Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), the CIA’s local station chief and Riley’s immediate boss; and Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), another of Gaines’s deputies. However, Skiles isn’t sure how much he can trust any of these supposed allies.

Beirut sets up its complex story by having Skiles delivers a boatload of exposition at the opening of the show. Once he returns to Lebanon, the plot moves pretty briskly as Skiles meets and makes his way through a tangle of people, most of whom have concealed and conflicting motivations.

No one emerges as entirely sympathetic, but Karim is the most intriguing. His concern for his brother is almost palpable, and his wish for his people to have a homeland is completely understandable; his willingness to use deadly force abruptly and liberally, however, is unnerving at best.

Skiles, by contrast, is a bit bland, as indeed are most of the rest of the characters, perhaps excepting Riley’s bitter wife, Alice (Kate Fleetwood, like Pike an Englishwoman playing American). Even so, writer Tony Gilroy builds tension nicely. Not only are Riley’s and perhaps Rami’s lives at stake, so are those of the spies whose identities Riley knows. Further, Israel has been eager to find a pretext to invade Lebanon, which harbors PLO forces, and the subterfuge with Rami could prove just the ticket to launch that bloody undertaking.

Beirut doesn’t offer a very nuanced understanding of the peoples of the Middle East, Karim’s character notwithstanding. Still, the movie delivers a solidly enjoyable espionage drama thanks to Gilory’s intelligent scripting and capable direction by Anderson (the Edgar Allan Poe–inspired Stoneheart AsylumThe Call and The Machinist, among others). This is a movie that deserves to make more of a splash than it has so far in its initial release.

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