Film Review: Beirut

Set in war-torn Lebanon, the hostage thriller 'Beirut' is frustratingly murky both in its message and its mise en scène.
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In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond famously declared of her era’s silent-film stars, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” She neglected to add that, most crucially, those faces were lit so the audience could see them.

There’s no shortage of dialogue in Beirut, the tale of Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), an anguished former State Department operative lured back to the Middle East to negotiate a hostage’s release. But often the wordy script, by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), is delivered by actors shot half in shadow, or backlit so their facial expressions and body language are nigh indiscernible.

Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) stages entire scenes with the camera positioned meters away from the action and the actors, filmed from behind columns and bushes and extras. Perhaps intended to reflect a world of hardened diplomats and intelligence agents who, by necessity, operate in the shadows, the impressionistic shooting style rather overstates the case, without contributing to the storytelling as much as it obscures whatever nuances the cast might be projecting.

Establishing its hazy visual and editing scheme early, the film introduces Skiles, voice-first, expounding on the Palestinian refugee crisis in Lebanon to his guests at a glamorous rooftop party he’s hosting with his wife Nadia (Leïla Bekhti) at their Beirut flat. It’s 1972, and Mason has no inkling of the devastating civil war to come. He also doesn’t know, until he’s informed by his friend and colleague Cal (Mark Pelligrino), that Karim, the 13-year old Palestinian refugee Mason and Nadia have taken in, is the kid brother of a terrorist wanted for the Munich Massacre that left eleven Israeli Olympians dead.

The Mossad want the culprit, Raffik (Mohamed Attougui), and to further their pursuit they’ll gladly take his 13-year old brother into custody. Yet, before Israeli forces can raid Mason’s party, a different faction of masked, gun-toting attackers bursts in, to bloody, tragic effect. Ten years later, a bereft Mason is back in the U.S., shuffling between nondescript motels and less-descript conference rooms, toiling as a labor arbitrator. The shift in circumstances from swinging ’70s parties to Mason passed out drunk in his Pinto provides the movie’s only real hint of humor.

Otherwise, Beirut maintains an appropriately serious tone, rendering its jittery handheld action and exchanges of covert statecraft with persistent intensity. The film seems to reflect Mason’s deeply cynical view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, resting just one glimmer of hope in the possibility that this fallen hero can reclaim his lost luster by returning to the land of his defeat and acing one critical assignment: negotiating the release of a kidnapped Cal.

Hamm conveys each phase of Mason’s multifaceted journey from hubristic host abroad, to humbled schlepper with a flask of liquor permanently fastened to his hand, to dialed-in hostage negotiator, yet his performance doesn’t pinpoint what expertise distinguishes Mason from any other operative. Yes, he’s established useful relationships and contacts, but any decent agent should have those. He’s no gadget-wielding James Bond or Liam Neeson-style bruiser with a special set of skills. His one true asset appears to be his ability to own any room by dint of confidence, armed with just his wits, a mouth full of “fucks” and a profile Norma Desmond would have swooned over.

As Sandy Crowder, the deputy cultural attaché at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Rosamund Pike isn’t called upon to swoon over Mason. Sandy keeps the working relationship brisk and focused as she assists him in tracking down whoever is holding Cal hostage, and to what ends. Beyond appearing smart and efficient, and frequently dispensing chunks of exposition, Sandy doesn’t evince much life or personality, although Pike, above all others, finds her light within the shots. Dean Norris, nearly unrecognizable as the embassy’s shady political adviser Don Gaines, registers an intriguingly unreadable operator hiding more than just his eyes behind dark sunglasses.

What Don wants, or what the kidnappers or the Israelis want, all take a backseat to the drama of Mason’s rise from the ashes. In the context of a story set during a brief lull in the years-long, extremely deadly Lebanese Civil War, Beirut feels a bit misguided for foregrounding the American’s emotional plight without substantially connecting his individual losses to the large-scale pain and loss all around him.

A brief sequence upon Mason’s return to Beirut attempts to relate his emotional and spiritual damage to the bombed-out, shell-shocked city, but the movie doesn’t take much into account those thousands of lives lost or shattered. Whatever pain lies at the heart of those devastated buildings is treated as mere background to Mason’s dark path of redemption, an emotionally distant journey that’s both under-lit and underwhelming.

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