When Tony Gilroy first wrote the screenplay for Beirut in 1991, it was considered too politically risky to make. While movie producers may be bolder about taking on political topics in 2018 (and thus Gilroy’s screenplay is now viable as a feature film), the style of the story hasn’t changed, making Brad Anderson’s belated big-screen realization a sort of inadvertent throwback. Set in 1982 with the feel of a movie made in that same era (or even a little earlier), Beirut is a no-nonsense thriller about a disgraced American diplomat called back into service to save the life of his former colleague and possibly help avert a civil war. Although it’s not based on a true story, Beirut has the rhythms of a docudrama, with action that’s more about foot chases and brief skirmishes than explosion-filled set pieces.
Jon Hamm plays Mason Skiles, who’s introduced living it up in Beirut before the days of the Lebanese civil war, hosting fancy dinner parties alongside his lovely wife. But his entire life comes crashing down in a single attack, and a decade later he’s an alcoholic widower living a hollow life back in the U.S., working as a corporate mediator. Beirut, too, has undergone serious changes, and when Mason reluctantly returns under pressure from the U.S. government, it’s to a bombed-out shell of the city he once loved. He’s there as a mediator of sorts, between American operatives and a rogue terrorist group that has kidnapped Mason’s old friend, CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino).
The kidnappers have asked for Mason by name, but the myriad U.S. agencies with interest in Cal’s return don’t trust Mason, and he’s soon playing both sides, unsure of anyone’s true motives. His one ally appears to be junior CIA agent Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), who’s mostly treated like an assistant by her male superiors, but who proves to be more competent and more compassionate than her colleagues. It takes a bit too long for Sandy to assert herself, though, and Pike is stuck playing sidekick for most of the movie when she could easily be the lead in this kind of thriller (and might be, with a screenplay written in 2018 rather than 1991).
Still, Hamm is very good as the deceptively clever Mason, who’s lost none of his sharpness despite his years of drinking and questionable decisions. Like Sandy, he’s consistently underestimated, allowing him to take advantage of the people who lack confidence in his abilities (including Sandy, at first), staying one step ahead of his adversaries and his handlers. Or at least mostly one step ahead, since Mason never turns into a Jason Bourne-style superspy (Gilroy is still best known for working on the first four Bourne movies), and instead relies on solid intel and guess work to make his way through volatile situations.
Anderson is a journeyman director whose best work is in sturdy, straightforward genre films (movies like Session 9, Transsiberian and The Machinist), and he captures the tone and style of vintage espionage thrillers, keeping the story grounded in believable characters and shrewd negotiating. Although the action remains restrained, Anderson can still generate suspense with a ticking clock or a flurry of gunfire, and the movie’s climax is particularly tense, as the various factions all converge on a hostage exchange. The final fallout may be a little underwhelming, as the audience wonders along with Mason about the true value of the mission, but Anderson efficiently keeps the thrills coming from moment to moment.