Another week, another serviceable but thoroughly unspecial story of Middle East intrigue and terrorism co-starring an impassive Rosamund Pike. Unlike last month’s fact-based 7 Days in Entebbe, though, Brad Anderson’s Beirut eschews an inexplicable modern dance component in favor of a more Bourne-esque take on Bourne-esque themes (unreachable redemption, government corruption, moral relativism and cyclical violence) from a script by Bourne franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy.
Jon Hamm stars as Mason Skiles (Beirut largely takes place during the Lebanese Civil War, with a story that traces over many actual events, but the name “Mason Skiles” alone is enough to establish that the script is pure fiction), a professional arbitrator living the sweet life in 1970s Beirut. With no shortage of conflicts to mediate, Mason resides in a beautiful mansion overlooking the city with his wife and a teenager named Karim, a sweet-faced orphan that the family is in the process of officially adopting.
Mason’s world comes crumbling down one night during a swanky cocktail party at his house, as Karim’s Palestinian terrorist brother Rajal arrives with a team of gunmen to abduct the boy before the Israeli government does, and Mason’s wife gets killed in the confusion. A decade later, Mason is scraping by as a labor negotiator in Boston, a broken and walled-off man soaking his sorrow in alcohol, determined to never set foot in the city of Beirut again.
That all changes when Mason gets word from the CIA that his old friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) has been abducted by Palestinians, and that the lead kidnapper specifically requested Mason return to the war-ravaged city to serve as negotiator. If you haven’t figured out that the kidnapper is a now-grown and radicalized Karim, then you will probably experience Beirut as a non-stop series of left-field surprises. Anyone with a passing familiarity of storytelling conventions will be a lot less impressed.
Pike fits into the picture as Sandy Crowder, a CIA operative assigned to track and control Mason, and then report back to a trio of shady State Department officials played by Shea Whigham, Larry Pine and a bewigged Dean Norris. Unsure who to trust, Mason begins freestyle-negotiating, wheeling and dealing from the back alleys of Beirut to the halls of power in Israel, while Sandy slowly forms an emotional attachment (this is gathered entirely through context, since Pike never once changes her expression).
A Sundance sensation from the late 1990s, Brad Anderson was a semi-hot property for a few minutes in the early 2000s with films like Session 9 and The Machinist, but he has spent most of the last decade-plus working in television. That might explain why Beirut feels like all the nuances and complexities of an entire season of a TV series were condensed into a perfunctory 109-minute movie, with relationships too shadowy and nebulous to provide real payoff.
Anderson and Gilroy put together a solid machine but neglected to fill the tank with any emotional fuel.