In Beirut’s opening scene, an American diplomat named Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) moves through the room at a cocktail party in a hilltop villa in Lebanon, the consummate host in his buff-colored blazer and muttonchop sideburns. “As soon as the talking stops, the fighting starts,” he expounds to a group of well-heeled guests.
He says that with full confidence, partly because it’s his job. (And also probably because he looks and sounds like Jon Hamm; who wouldn’t listen when he talks?) But it’s only 1972, and Beirut as a byword for chaos and destruction in the Middle East is still several years away.
An ugly portent of what’s to come arrives quicker than that, though — and within minutes director Brad Anderson’s tightrope thriller has jumped forward a decade to a very different Mason: rumpled, boozy, and back in the States arbitrating low-level Teamster scuffles for New England trade unions. As grim as his current prospects look, he’s not exactly thrilled when a request comes straight from the White House to return to the city he left behind a decade ago. But it’s also made clear that it’s not an offer he can refuse.
Penned by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the first four Bourne screenplays) more than 25 years ago and dusted off by Anderson (The Machinist, episodes of Fringe and The Wire), Beirut is the kind of wordy, complex drama that doesn’t get much multiplex traction anymore, even though it’s gilded with great-looking movie stars (including Rosamund Pike as a C.I.A. minder who makes every flak jacket look like Dior) and rooted in still-timely conflicts — a Le Carré-esque shadow world where backroom deals and dark alliances are the basic currency, and political horse-trading frequently involves real human lives.
A lot of similar, superior films have passed through in the interim since the script’s early-’90s inception, which can’t help lending a little mothball whiff to what’s happening onscreen. (The brown-child-turned-radicalized-terrorist plotline also skates dangerously close to some cultural third rails that might have gone unnoted back then.) But the performances are strong and the story is absorbing; a smart diversion for adult attention spans. B+