Jon Hamm has his most challenging role pretty much ever in director Brad Anderson’s harsh, espionage-type dramatic thriller, and he’s helped by pro screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s script, some brutal action scenes and a sense of anti-Americanism.
Shooting for a sort of ‘New Hollywood’, ‘70s-style, conspiracy-tinged edge, this doesn’t properly get into the dangerous complexities of the titular region, and that’s kind of the point: arrogant foreign powers simply couldn’t make sense of what was going on in Beirut, and yet they went there to make money and exploit everyone anyway.
Opening in 1972, we watch as naïve Mason Skiles (Hamm), a US diplomat in Lebanon, hosts a glamourous party with help from his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti). He casually talks about how the place is a hotbed of Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Americans, refugees and others all at each other’s throats, as director Anderson plays up the dread to make it obvious that something terrible is about to happen. The sudden revelation that Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), a 13 year old Palestinian kid the family has taken in, is linked to that year’s Munich massacre has upset many commentators, of course, and violence naturally follows.
We then take up 10 years later with the burnt-out, boozed-up Mason working as a labour arbitrator in New England and looking like Don Draper after an especially big night. He’s approached by Sully (Douglas Hodge) and offered the chance to give an academic lecture in Lebanon. Although Mason says he wouldn’t ever go back there, he naturally does just that, knowing full well that he’s going to be forced to do something risky.
He’s met by a trio of State Department officials, and they’re all a bit clichéd, but grim character actors Larry Pine, Shea Whigham and Dean Norris (with a toupée) bring a pleasant seriousness to scenes where they glower at Mason, who also strikes up a tense bond with CIA officer Sandy Crowder (well played by Rosamund Pike in the only female role of substance here). It transpires that another American has been kidnapped in the Civil-War-ravaged city and Mason must be the negotiator. He’s forced to deal with representatives of one gun-toting group after another, while uncomfortably realising what a mess his country has helped make in the Middle East.
However, director Anderson (keen to step up from horror movies like Stonehearst Asylum and lame thrillers like The Call) and scripter Gilroy don’t make Mason’s political awakening moving or even poetic. It’s something uglier, louder and scarier, as he starts to understand what an idiot he’s been, and Hamm (so good at being shallow) is just about up to the task of making it real and adding a little heart. But it’s an uphill battle, and such a humourless one – although there is one funny moment where Mason gets smashed while a lounge singer who can barely speak English tries to croon, rather fittingly, Air Supply’s All Out Of Love.
Rated MA. Beirut is in cinemas now.