Last month was a benchmark in terms of the number of amazing film-watching experiences for me. First was Isle of Dogs, the latest offering from Wes Anderson, which I was entirely delighted by and I gave 4 ½ out of 5 stars on Letterbox. The next day I watched A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s Horror/Drama that was one of the most conceptually sophisticated and moving films I’ve seen in a long time.
After a streak of enjoying great films I caught a showing of Beirut, the new Drama/Thriller starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. The story definitely has legs and it’s decently acted. I walked away with some new perspectives on war-time decision making and was entertained by the ins and outs of hostage negotiations, but when it’s all said and done it’s a fairly forgettable film.
Beirut follows Mason Skiles, a U.S. diplomat in Beirut in the 1970s who lives there with his wife and adopted son. His charmed life comes to a screeching halt in the opening moments of the film when his family experiences a tragedy in light of the growing terrorist presence in Palestine and other global terrorist threats such as the Munich Olympics massacre. Fast forward over a decade when Skiles is back in the U.S. living a drab existence as a labor-dispute mediator by day and a raging alcoholic at night.
While sitting at a bar one night he’s mysteriously recruited to return to Beirut under the pretense that a local university wants him to come give a lecture about his job as a U.S. diplomat. It’s obvious there’s something else at play, but we’re not sure what exactly. The poor writing gets exposed in this pivotal transition in the film when for no clear reason and with no clear motivation, Skiles returns to Beirut. Why would he return to a place that was so painful for him especially when he promised himself he would never return. Is it curiosity? Nostalgia? As an audience we’re left to wonder, but it doesn’t derail the film too much as we’re also curious about what’s waiting for him in Beirut.
When Skiles returns to Beirut, it’s far from the home that he remembers. It’s now a war-torn country where shootouts in the street are commonplace and there’s more than one neighborhood you don’t want to wander into. It’s former glory is covered in rubble and citizens are caught in the crossfire of political conflict and terrorism.
His “handler” on this mission, a cultural attaché for the embassy (played by Rosamund Pike), gets Skiles up to speed on the situation and she and the rest of the team of political leaders in Beirut are skeptical about Skiles’ contribution given his concerning drinking habit and the fact that he hasn’t been in the field for quite some time. When it’s finally revealed that Skiles is in Beirut to help with the hostage negotiation, the intrigue is stepped up a notch, especially when we learn the hostage and the kidnaper are important players from his past.
Skiles is a skilled negotiator and it’s fun to watch. As the story unfolds, the lines are blurred between national interests and personal interests. Very few people hold the decision making power, but many people are implicated in those decisions. The premise and acting alone are enough to keep you engaged during this suspenseful story. It’s difficult, however, to care about any one character. The stakes seem like they should be high, but whether it’s the writing or something else, we just don’t feel that way as an audience.
Skiles and the rest of the government operatives involved in the hostage situation are pulled in different directions by mixed motives and agendas. In this film, the person who can talk fastest and present the best argument (whether actual facts are involved) wins. Hamm does an excellent job in this role as a convincing fast talker, but it’s the hard decisions where each party has to lose something, that really carries this film.
I’d say if you’ve already enjoyed some of the other great films playing in theaters this month and the premise and genre sound intriguing to you, check this film out. Otherwise, don’t worry about missing out on the discussion about this film at the water cooler at work.