Saturday 17 October 2020

Movie Review: Beirut (2018)

An espionage and terrorism drama thriller, Beirut probes the morass of deadly Middle East power games playing out in Lebanon. Despite decent ambiance, the film flounders on cliches and disingenuity.

In 1972, American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is living the good life in Beirut, married to Nadia (Leïla Bekhti) and hosting cocktail parties for the country's elites and visiting dignitaries. The Skiles are good friends with the CIA's Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) and his wife Alice (Kate Fleetwood). But Mason's life is upturned when Karim, a 13-year old Palestinian boy who is almost part of Mason's family, is revealed as the brother of a terrorist involved in the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Ten years later Mason is an alcoholic working as a labour negotiator in Boston. The CIA calls him back to Beirut, now destroyed by a civil war. Field officer Sandy (Rosamund Pike) and Ambassador Whalen (Larry Pine) reveal Cal has been abducted and the kidnappers have specifically requested Mason's involvement to negotiate a prisoner swap. Mason is soon embroiled in a dangerous game involving terrorists, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and ghosts from his past, with the integrity of America's regional spy network at stake and Israel itching to invade Lebanon and drive out the PLO.

As a 1980s city lying in ruins but still home to numerous local, regional and international armed factions engaged in endless conflict, Beirut provides fertile terrain for drama. The film (actually shot in Morocco) does take advantage of the context, and director Brad Anderson, working from an occasionally cutting Tony Gilroy script, captures the chaos and danger of armed thugs roaming the streets and manning checkpoints, every neighbourhood controlled by a different militia and the threat of death residing around every corner. Streaking fighter jets and the dull thuds of explosions - distant and sometimes not so distant - provide a suitable soundtrack.

The plot basics are promising and grounded in actual events, including the impenetrable complexities of the civil war, the Palestinian cause, notorious acts of terror, Israel's ambitions to invade the country, American bumbling, and the foreign hostage-taking crisis. But the specifics disappoint, including the utterly exhausted alcoholism angle, an unfortunate camels-on-the-beach shot, and dreadfully misplaced accents. The negotiations to free Riley start strong with a nimble side trip to Israel, but with the clock running down Gilroy and Anderson default to muddled short-cuts and under-developed contrivances.

Jon Hamm allows Mason's perpetual five o'clock shadow and frumpled clothes carrying the stale stench of alcohol to dominate. Rosamund Pike never quite gets a handle on her character, while the rest of the cast stick to basic agitated spy / more agitated militiaman stereotypes. Beirut provides a rich canvass, but the picture fades.

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