By Preston Wilder
What happens in Beirut? People act “in ways that might be subject to a variety of legitimate interpretations,” explains someone at the end (um, spoiler?) – and that line is typical of this hugely enjoyable movie, both in expressing ambivalence and in its witty, literate stylings. The script is by the great Tony Gilroy who wrote Duplicity, Michael Clayton and the first four Bourne films – and Beirut is like a more nuanced Bourne film without any bone-crunching action, just some jaded old pros trying to do the right thing. Is it actually the right thing, or whatever suits their personal interests? Both would be legitimate interpretations.
This is very slick filmmaking – slickly written, acted and directed, and a major wallow in war-zone chic. The year is 1982 (with a prologue set 10 years earlier) when Beirut is a symbol – much like Syria today – of the madness of the Middle East, a city in ruins. Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is our hero, a former diplomat turned professional arbitrator; he’s traded embassy parties for labour disputes, and elegant cocktails for a whisky flask and a drinking problem – but then he’s summoned back to Beirut, where a spook has been taken hostage and the captors have specifically asked for him, Mason, to handle the negotiations. Meanwhile Israel is lurking, looking for any excuse to invade – and meanwhile Beirut is a tangle of warring militias, tearing the city apart.
The film is serious, dealing in high-level politics – but it’s also, like we said, very slick, with a swagger in the writing. Take the Rue de Nabil, Mason instructs his driver; I can’t, replies the driver, it’s not safe, there was a bomb there this morning. ‘Who was behind it?’ asks our hero – and we get a long, funny, labyrinthine rant about the Christians saying it was the PLO, and the PLO blaming the Druze and the Druze insisting it was the Syrians, etc etc. “And what do you say?” asks Mason. “I say we skip the Rue de Nabil!” replies the driver – the perfect punchline, totally slick yet also irresistible. Beirut in Beirut isn’t quite a real place, nor is it really like today’s Syria; it’s more like Casablanca in Casablanca, a glamorous warren of dodgy characters and splendid one-liners, with a dash of self-conscious melancholy.
Maybe it’s because we’re so geographically close to (the real) Beirut, but the film’s contrivance prompts the occasional eye-roll. One secret meeting takes place at the ‘Pharmacy Jumblatt’, which suggests Gilroy typing his script in LA and going with the first Lebanese surname that came to mind (Walid Jumblatt is among the best-known Lebanese politicians; it’s like writing a script set in Moscow and setting a meeting at the ‘Café Yeltsin’). The streets are awash in rather clichéd local colour: hookah pipes, shoeshine boys, women in burqas. A hotel has a sign asking guests to remain in their rooms in the event of a shooting. A fat bald man sits in a bar, playing poker with a deck of nudie playing cards; he’s a PLO big-shot with a beautiful mistress in a flat on the Rue Hamra, paid a fortune by airlines in exchange for not blowing their planes up – and would certainly have been played by Sydney Greenstreet had this film been made in the 1940s, which it feels like it could’ve been.
Still, the Hollywood-romantic style comes with hard-nosed political barbs. America’s special relationship with Israel is laid out plainly, and none too flatteringly; “Why go to the son, when the father is so close?” asks an Arab witheringly, the US being ‘the father’ (though last week’s news on Iran’s nuclear deal makes you wonder if the roles should be reversed). It’s made clear that some US officials are actively enabling Israel’s plans to invade – though the Arabs don’t fare much better, Mason’s shattered bond with a young terrorist who was once his ward being a big part of the film’s abiding sadness.
This is a world of cynics and wily Machiavellians, “damaged goods” and disillusioned spymasters. “I don’t get surprised very often. Not in a good way… That’s my version of a compliment,” offers CIA agent Sandy (Rosamund Pike), and in this world it really is a compliment. Even the weightless banter has an edge here – though Pike herself is probably the weak link, way too stiff in her token female role. Hamm is better, indeed he’s the whole show: a fast-talking maverick, taking risks and making deals in between little pangs of unhappiness (he has bad memories of Beirut) and mid-morning slugs of bourbon.
Drinks are knocked back in Beirut, cigarettes are smoked, happier times recalled, regrets alluded to. It’s that kind of movie – troubled times in an exotic locale, personal redemption (and/or doing the right thing) cast on the rocks of political expediency. It’s great fun, though it’s all very movie-ish. Is this really the way it went down, in Beirut in 1982? Let’s just say it’s a legitimate interpretation.
DIRECTED BY Brad Anderson
STARRING Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris
US 2018 109 mins