Were it not for the deadly serious subject matter, it would be fair to say that “Beirut” is one splendidly entertaining movie.
These kinds of internecine political thrillers often move too fast (especially when set in the murky Middle East), so half the time I can’t follow what’s going on. And “Beirut” certainly hustles along -- with a whip-smart prologue that grabs you by the throat.
But the whole the script by Tony Gilroy (“Rogue One,” “State of Play,” “Michael Clayton”) makes a perfect blend of clarity and pell-mell plotting, and the film is absorbing from start to finish.
“Mad Men’s” John Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a U.S. diplomat whose life fell apart after a 1972 shooting in Lebanon. Ten years later, a stateside alcoholic reduced to labor arbitration, Skiles is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a high-stakes kidnapping in the city he claimed he’d never return to.
I won’t say much more about the plot, except that Gilroy has just the right number of important characters -- each with his or her own agenda -- to keep things interesting in every scene.
Chief among these is Sandy Crowder, a CIA operative beautifully brought to life with another fine performance from Rosamund Pike. Finally coming into her own, Pike has made four movies in the past year or so, with three more in the can (including “Radioactive,” in which she plays Marie Curie). Crowder is a team player who, like others in this tale, has to start wondering whether the team is worth playing for.
Hamm makes Skiles both authoritative and sympathetic, getting excellent support from the reliable Shea Whigham, “Breaking Bad’s” Dean Norris (warning: he’s got hair!), Larry Pine and Idir Chender as the principal kidnapper.
Suspense runs high throughout, but one of the story’s nicer features is the way it’s driven by character and dialog rather than chases, gunfire and explosions.
Early on, Skiles describes an embassy party thus: “We’ve got Christians in one corner and Muslims in the other, with Jack Daniel’s in between.”
Later, he quips, “Nothing like mingling with a bunch of congressmen to destroy your faith in democracy.”
The film also sizzles with an uneasy atmosphere soaked in the ambient terror of a city contested by several groups, all anxious to attack at any moment. Tanks patrol the beach; little kids play in the street with real guns; and a sign at Skiles’ blasted-up lodgings reads: “In the event of a shooting at the hotel Management insists Guests stay in their rooms and DO NOT ATTEMPT to take photographs. Thank you.”
Despite the general clarity, “Beirut’s” final twist is a bit too fast and brief; but I’m pretty sure I figured it out. And in any case, its overall resolution certainly feels satisfying after so much dread and tension.
Released in April 2018, this crackerjack thriller saw very little theatrical play; it is now available on DVD and streaming.
directed by Brad Anderson
Run time: 109 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated R for language, some violence and a brief nude image