Friday, April 13, 2018

Beirut: A savvy espionage thriller

Beirut (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Tony Gilroy has a flair for placing compelling characters at the heart of world-shattering events, whether wholly imagined or extracted from actual history, thereby involving viewers on a more comprehensible and intimate level.

Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm, center) quickly realizes that he has been dragged back to
Beirut under false pretenses, the actual reasons soon to be explained by CIA
operatives Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris).
He tells complex stories through the eyes of just a few (more or less) ordinary folks, often in a manner that feels Hitchcockian: the hero besieged on all sides, uncertain who to trust, often in way over his head. This talent brought Gilroy a well-deserved Oscar nomination for 2007’s Michael Clayton, and he did a similarly fine job on the 2009 adaptation of State of Play.

Then, too, Gilroy knows his way around adrenaline-charged espionage thrillers, having scripted — and, in one case, directed — four of the recent Bourne entries.

All these elements are in play with Beirut, an audaciously clever and suspenseful drama set during the eponymous city’s catastrophic transition from picturesque cultural melting pot to violence-ridden war zone. The focus is on one man who reluctantly returns to a land he once loved, but which now yields only nightmares, and has become ludicrously dangerous: where “truth,” if it exists at all, emerges only when it’s convenient ... or, more likely, when it’s profitable.

Gilroy’s story can’t help feeling far-fetched, particularly as matters grow increasingly complicated. But, sadly, it probably isn’t.

We meet American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) under happy circumstances in 1972, hosting a lavish dinner party at his Beirut estate; the attendees include dignitaries, movers and shakers from various neighboring countries, and even an American senator. Mason is at his best, gliding from one guest to another: telling an insightful story here, facilitating a mutually beneficial introduction there.

It becomes clear, from Mason’s smooth patter, that he’s a fixer: a negotiator (and, frankly, that would have been a better title for this film) able to analyze both people and situations with uncanny accuracy. “Don’t play poker with him,” somebody later cautions, when describing Mason.

The party’s carefully established convivial balance tips with the late arrival of Mason’s best friend, CIA agent Cal Rily (Mark Pellegrino). Moments later — likely not coincidence — the gathering erupts in lethally violent chaos. Mason’s world is shattered in a heartbeat.

Flash-forward 10 years. Now back in the States, Mason — a barely functioning alcoholic — heads a two-man firm that mediates labor disputes: a thankless job that brings him no pleasure ... but, then, nothing could. Odd circumstances drag him back to Beirut, where — no surprise — he discovers that he’s been summoned under a pretense. American Embassy officials and upper-echelon CIA agents are in a dither over a terrorist kidnapping.

The hostage is Cal, and the terrorists are interested in a swap. They’ve demanded the participation of Mason — by name — to negotiate the details. Which is odd.

Mason is too puzzled to be surprised. In addition to being a decade estranged from Cal, he can’t imagine a set of circumstances that would prompt his involvement. That feeling is mutual, because everybody else in the room — CIA Agent Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), D.C. representative Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) and American Ambassador Frank Whalen (Larry Pine) — regards Mason as more liability than potential savior: a hopeless drunk long past his functional prime.

Mason’s Embassy-assigned handler, Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), tries to retain an open mind, but he doesn’t make it easy. She inevitably finds him either draped over a glass at the hotel bar, or rashly and impulsively sneaking off under uncertain circumstances: not an easy guy to clock. But Mason has reason to be wary; he knows that she’s no more a benign “cultural attaché” than Gaines.

On top of which, the “simple” hostage negotiation quickly gets complicated by competing agendas from American spies and politicians, the Israeli military, corrupt local bureaucrats and even a resident Palestinian Liberation Front minister.

(No, you won’t need to take notes. But bathroom breaks aren’t advised.)

Hamm is persuasively credible at both extremes of his character’s personality: initially during the 1972 prologue, when you’ll detect just enough of the Don Draper smarm — still resonating from television’s Mad Men— to question the sincerity with which Mason works the room. But Hamm becomes much more interesting during the lengthier 1982 aftermath, when Mason’s behavior becomes erratic, foolish and even suicidal.

We see the defeated hopelessness in Mason’s eyes — the lingering despair in the way he hunches — and realize that his actions make perfect sense. This is a guy with nothing to lose; he simply doesn’t care any more. At the same time, when push comes to negotiating shove, he rises to the occasion because — even wallowing in anguish — he can’t help himself. It’s what he does.

Pike’s presence is an intriguing coincidence, given her role in the recent and similarly themed 7 Days in Entebbe. She’s much more credible here, on (we assume) the side of the angels, playing a mysterious character whose agenda feels more honorable than that of her duplicitous male colleagues. Her thoughtful gaze speaks volumes: Director Brad Anderson coaxes a far better performance out of her, than was the case with her thoroughly unsatisfying work in Entebbe.

Whigham is appropriately arrogant, condescending and ruthless as the devious Ruzak: a guy who clearly can’t be trusted at all. Pellegrino, on the other hand, isn’t quite as successful with Cal. He’s obviously cut from the same cloth as Ruzak, but at the same time is supposed to be Mason’s good friend; Pellegrino never sells that latter detail.

Production designer Arad Sawat recreates war-torn 1982 Beirut to an amazing degree. The setting looks, feels and sounds wholly authentic: a smothering atmosphere of blood, religion and revenge. (Filming actually took place in a portion of northwestern Morocco’s Tangier, which — due to a fascinating quirk of recent history — provided the desired devastated neighborhoods laden with rubble and partially demolished buildings.)

Anderson and editor Andrew Hafitz maintain a crisp pace, and John Debney’s orchestral score adds an unsettling ambiance.

Beirut is a grimly cynical story with an depressing degree of real-world significance. This film could have been made 30 years ago; it probably could be made 30 years from now, and remain just as relevant. That’s a testament to both Gilroy’s scripting savvy, and the utter futility of expecting change in a part of the world where sectarian violence has flourished for millennia.

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