I’m a massive fan of blockbuster cinema (when Avengers: Infinity War hits theatres this month I’ll be first in line), but I also miss the days when Hollywood packed multiplexes with smart, mid-budget dramas, thrillers, and crime flicks. Beirut, a collaboration between director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Identity), looks to scratch that itch. With its gritty look and feel, and a cast featuring Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, and Shea Whigham, Beirut offers a brief diversion from the current flood of mega-budget popcorn flicks.
It’s 1972, and Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is an American diplomat living in Beirut. We know Mason is great at his job because when we first meet him he’s hosting a dinner party filled with guests who shouldn’t get along, but Mason is so charming and attentive that the guests don’t have time to be at each other’s throats. Despite Beirut’s unstable political climate, things are good in Mason’s life. He loves his wife, and they’ve taken in a young Palestinian boy who they plan to make their ward.
Flash forward ten years, and Mason is back in America, depressed and working a crappy job mediating labour disputes. His wife is dead, his life is in the dumps, and he jumpstarts his day pouring shots of whiskey into his coffee mug. While burying his sorrows at a bar, he’s approached by a government agent. The CIA wants Mason back in Beirut to negotiate a sensitive deal, and they’re offering a stack of cash to make it worth his time. Mason accepts the offer, and he’s thrust into a political climate more volatile than the one he left. On top of that, as if being an alcoholic burnout with a haunted past wasn’t enough to overcome, Mason’s job is to save an old friend’s life.With its dull characters, Beirut’s emotional stakes feel too low to hook viewers hungry for dramaClick To Tweet
Hamm received so much praise during his years on Mad Men that his jump to feature film leading man felt like a sure thing. The only question was, how soon would it happen? Mad Men ended several years ago, and Hamm’s been racking up IMDb credits, but he still hasn’t made the leap. Beirut isn’t the film to anoint him either, but he does show off his range. Hamm plays both a blissful family man and a cynical drunkard, and each side of the character feels authentic. For most of the film, Mason is a surly, haunted, and sweaty mess. Greasy Hamm is fun to watch, but I needed him to reveal a few more layers to his character in order to hook me and reel me in. Mason isn’t heroic enough to root for, or broken in a way that’s worth deconstructing.
Rosamond Pike, Shea Whigham, and Dean Norris each appear in underdeveloped roles. I’ve watched Whigham and Norris steal scenes for years; they’re great as boastful men and oily lowlifes, so it’s bizarre that they feel so flat as a pair of flighty State Department officials. Pike has a thankless role as Mason’s handler. Like her co-stars, her character, Sandy Crowder, is undercooked, but her cold and methodical performance also makes Agent Crowder feel more like a Terminator than a woman.
Beirut’s ambitious script is its biggest problem. The movie looks great, has a strong cast, and creates a high-stakes atmosphere, but the labyrinthine plot holds it back from greatness. The story plays out like a video game fetch quest: go to point A and receive an information dump that sends you over to point B, and repeat. We watch Mason gain intel and stumble around Beirut like a child on an Easter egg hunt. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if these scenes featured smart dialogue, compelling character revelations, or thrilling action beats. They don’t.
Cinematographer, Björn Charpentier, does fantastic work establishing a sense of place and making Mason’s world feel authentic. He shoots most of the film against a backdrop of crumbling buildings, grimy alleys, and rubble-strewn roads. You can almost feel the heat radiating off Beirut’s sun-baked streets. There’s a palpable sense of tension in each scene, as the threat of violence lurks at every turn. Charpentier also ratchets up our stress levels through manic camera movements. He uses a documentary-style shaky-cam that intensifies the feeling of disorder. When violence erupts, you feel like you’re in the streets with the characters as they run for cover.
However, Anderson has created a by-the-numbers thriller that lacks punch. The crackling energy felt during the opening ten minutes fizzles out, giving way to a plot-heavy thriller that plods along for another ninety. With its dull characters, Beirut’s emotional stakes feel too low to hook viewers hungry for drama, and there isn’t enough action to please those hoping for thrills. What’s left is a middle-of-the-road film that doesn’t have any glaring flaws, but nothing about it stands out either.