A hostage rescue story set in the middle of the Lebanese civil war, Brad Anderson's Beirut offers Jon Hamm as a different kind of persuasion merchant, trying to negotiate a friend's release before more powerful men decide he's not worth trying to keep alive. Increasingly tense and benefiting from a well-thought-out script by Tony Gilroy, it finds a slim opening for heroics in a place where all parties are tainted. Though not a sure thing commercially, it will play well with fans of John le Carre-sourced films.
Hamm's Mason Skiles begins the film as a happy diplomat in 1972 Beirut, schmoozing with other Americans and confident he understands the messy politics of the region. But a shocking incident, which suggests he doesn't know as much as he thinks, leaves both his life and his career a wreck.
Ten years later, he's a drunk earning a living by mediating labor disputes. He has a knack for seeing through each party's bluffs and knowing what they're willing to settle for once passions subside. What better place for him than back in the Middle East?
He is summoned to his old post mysteriously, where he is told that his old friend and colleague Cal (Mark Pellegrino) has been kidnapped. Strangely, his captors have asked specifically for Skiles to negotiate his return. So the hodgepodge of Americans trying to keep things under control in the now-war-ravaged city — including the Embassy's Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) and the CIA's Donald Gaines (Dean Norris) and Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) — must pray Skiles can stay sober long enough to serve as the mouthpiece for their own agendas.
As the Le Carre namecheck above suggests, those agendas are varied and complex, but as the picture develops, Gilroy manages to show how different nations' and military groups' interests affect the action without often bogging things down with exposition. It emerges that the kidnappers want the return of a terrorist, involved in the Munich Olympics massacre and several other atrocities, who is probably being secretly held in an Israeli prison.
Skiles is no Jared Kushner, but he believes he has a chance of balancing Arab and Israeli concerns on this small scale. Attempting to do so, though, complicates things for the American staffers who have to get along with these people year-round. Going through channels isn't going to work.
The only person who seems fully committed to getting Cal back is Crowder, who winds up nearly as estranged from local authorities as Skiles is. The two race the clock to make a swap that may not even be honored by the kidnappers.
Hamm is unsurprisingly excellent as a man whose intellectual gifts did not simply disappear when he started letting himself go. Though we're set up to expect a bit more crafty deal making than the picture winds up delivering, Skiles' long-overdue chance to confront the past offers enough emotional weight to make the war-zone detective work feel less formulaic than it might have. Pike's role is considerably less rewarding.
Gilroy wrote this script in 1991, when it attracted interest but was considered too button-pushing to produce. Only after the success of Argo did this kind of story start to seem commercially viable again to backers. It's rare to get such a dramatic flashback in the career of a filmmaker, but Beirut doesn't feel like a leftover.