As intriguing as it sounds, Beirut hints at a gritty and provocative exploration of recent volatility in the Middle East before ultimately squandering its true-life backdrop.
Although it provides modest insight, this muddled and formulaic thriller tends to oversimplify the sociopolitical conflicts in its titular setting. If only forging Middle East peace was this clear-cut.
The story opens in 1972, when Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is an American diplomat living in a posh house in the Lebanese capital. His ability to maintain peace in the region, however, is torn apart by an attack at a dinner party that tears his family apart and sends him into an emotional downward spiral.
Flash forward 10 years, and Skiles is back in the United States, working as an independent labor mediator who drowns his perpetually beleaguered mindset in alcohol. One day, he’s met with an enticing offer from a high-level government official (Rosamund Pike) to return to Beirut under cryptic circumstances, which he’s coerced into accepting.
As it turns out, a former colleague (Mark Pellegrino) has been abducted amid the escalating political unrest, and Skiles has been called upon for his negotiation skills. But his involvement also causes him to revisit another troubling element from his past.
The screenplay by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity) — who apparently has been developing the project for more than two decades — is intermittently taut and suspenseful, yet doesn’t offer much contemporary resonance. Perhaps as a result of telling the story from an outsider’s perspective, it lacks sufficient meaningful context to fill the gaps between narrative twists and contrivances.
As directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist), the film eventually conveys more moral complexity as character motives become cloudy and Skiles is uncertain who he can trust.
Hamm bolsters the film with a casually charming performance that balances the strength and vulnerability in his character without being afraid to reveal Skiles’ flaws. The versatile Pike (Gone Girl), unfortunately, isn’t given as much to work with.
Beirut is hardly the definitive film about the Lebanese Civil War, although in fairness, it doesn’t seem to harbor such ambitions. It’s an uneven a character study that, like its main character, generally doesn’t have time to bother with details.