Film: Beirut

Director Brad Anderson has a solid track record for modest but attractively produced thrillers. His recent film Beirut (2018) adds to this reputation, a smartly crafted espionage tale that provides a nice meaty role for Jon Hamm. In the early seventies, Mason Skiles (Hamm) is a U.S. diplomat in Lebanon whose life takes a tragic turn. Ten years later, retired from government service, Skiles is a low-rent labor union arbitrator, deep in the bottle and living in the shadow of this tragedy. He receives an unappealing approach from an old acquaintance to return to Beirut to deliver an academic lecture. Going back to Beirut is the last thing he wants to do, but eventually he’s persuaded, suspecting intrigue that indeed comes to pass. It turns out the American government needs him to serve as an exchange negotiator for a CIA officer named Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), an old friend who’s fallen into the hands of a terrorist named Karim (Idir Chender)—with whom Skiles also has a history.

Beirut is classic spy fare executed with confidence. It delivers many of the genre’s requisite tropes, most effective among them its focus on a cynical, run-down protagonist getting lured out retirement for one last job. Hamm is perfectly suited to this role, and his performance is a major selling point. Of course, some of the tropes aren’t exactly assets. Here’s another spy movie, for example, with a token female character (Rosamund Pike, excellent as a CIA officer and ally to Skiles), and another less-than-nuanced depiction of the Middle East, curiously low on Middle-Eastern characters. Hollywood could certainly stand to drum these failings out of the genre. But it’s a well structured affair with a twisty, compelling plot and great acting from Hamm, Pike, Pellegrino, Chender, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, and the rest of the cast. For the most part, it’s a solid, satisfying episode of spy cinema.


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