At the risk of sounding like an old geezer, I’ll say that Hollywood just doesn’t make spy movies like they used to. Sure, the Daniel Craig James Bond films are fun but they’re fantasy. RED SPARROW, on the other hand, was just awful with its “moose and squirrel” accents and its premise of sex as a weapon. The problem might be that the espionage game these days usually takes place in a room somewhere with a bunch of geeks sitting in front of a bank of computer screens. The scene doesn’t exactly lend itself to mystery and intrigue, much less excitement. Even TV’s HOMELAND has lost its veneer as the past two seasons have focused on fake news and the people who use it to further their agendas.
When I heard that the film, BEIRUT, was written by Tony Gilroy (the BOURNE series; ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY) thirty years ago, I was curious to see it because that was a time when technology meant forearm-sized communication devices (aka walkie talkies) and grainy surveillance images. Spies were in the field, not sitting in front of a computer.
In the film, Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm, BABY DRIVER, TV’s MAD MEN) is an American diplomat based in Beirut in 1972. While hosting a party along with his Lebanese wife at their spacious home, his friend, CIA officer Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino, TV’s DEXTER; TV’s LOST), informs Mason that the 13-year-old orphan that Mason and his wife have taken into their home is the brother of wanted terrorist Rafid Abu Rajal. Abu Rajal has been linked to the massacre at the Munich Olympics, which took place just weeks before. Before Mason can negotiate a solution that can protect the boy and satisfy the authorities, all hell breaks loose. Fast forward ten years and Mason is now a soft-boiled alcoholic, arbitrating labour relations cases in New England. Once a spy, always a spy though, as the CIA calls him back to Lebanon when one of their own gets taken hostage by one of the militant groups that have carved up the city in the wake of that country’s ongoing civil war. The Agency is worried that their man will spill the beans and set their efforts in the region aflame. When Mason gets there, he’s surprised to learn that it wasn’t his former colleagues who requested him though. It was the kidnappers. Someone has captured Rafid Abu Rajal and they want him back.
In the UK, BEIRUT has the title of THE NEGOTIATOR, which is much more apt as the story has less to do with Beirut than it does with Mason’s negotiation skills. Unfortunately, that’s the big shortcoming with this film. We’re given a lot of American perspective on Lebanon’s civil war and very little perspective from anyone else who is involved – and there was no shortage of players who were involved, from the Lebanese Christians to the Syrian-backed Muslim militia, the PLO, the Israelis and even the Russians. All these groups are mentioned during the film but we, as outsiders, don’t get the opportunity to witness the chess game that is going on behind the scenes. It could be argued that if we had, the film would have been three hours long but I think it would have made for a more compelling story.
MAD MEN fans may like Hamm in this role as it will feel very familiar to them. If you can imagine Don Draper having a new career after Sterling Cooper, this could be it. It’s not exactly an acting stretch for Hamm but he’s so good at it that we can forgive him. Both he and co-star Rosamund Pike (A UNITED KINGDOM; GONE GIRL), who plays “Cultural Attaché” Sandy Crowder, do a good job keeping the story moving along. Interestingly, their relationship doesn’t follow the usual movie arc, leaving the possibility for future development should a sequel be made… and it’s very possible given Hollywood’s penchant these days for franchises.
All in all, BEIRUT is an okay film. It certainly could have benefited from a fleshier script and it does boil the conflict down to one rather naïve tagline, but it’s reasonably tense as it is. If you’ve already seen ANT-MAN AND THE WASP and you’re looking for something to see this weekend, check it out. You could do far worse.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, July 12th at 8:30 am HK time!
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