If you don’t ask too much of Beirut, it’s a good enough thriller to keep your brain modestly engaged for a short time. Just don’t go getting inquisitive on it. Maybe the film’s strong suit is that it’s totally familiar, a thriller that might get your juices going by reminding you of the many other movies that did get you stirred up.
Beirut, of course, takes place in the major city in Lebanon, during one of the most violent times in its history. It’s 1972, at a reception hosted by Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), an American operative who knows all about the Middle East. A drink in his hand, Skiles holds forth with a conceit that the Middle East compares to a boarding house with no landlord, so that it’s rudderless and impossible to control.
Then something awful happens, which seems to prove Skiles’s point, and in a flash, it’s 10 years later and Skiles has become a labor negotiator at home, trying to control a different kind of chaos, again without success.
It’s no surprise that Skiles gets drawn back into Lebanon. That’s what happens in movies about spy-types bedeviled by an old trauma. Now, Skiles jumps back into the morass to help free a hostage from maybe the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yassir Arafat.
But more than the action in Beirut comes out of a can. There’s not a line of dialogue you haven’t heard before, or a relationship or even the Skiles character. Skiles, still with a drink in his hand, must make you think about Jon Hamm’s famous Don Draper, from the show Mad Men. Here, he grieves for what happened 10 years earlier. But he’s still a know-it-all, still a charming, boozed-up fixer. The professionals in Beirut resent him; he resents them. He doesn’t care about their rules for how to operate in such alien territory. He’s a maverick, and there’s an attractive young woman (Rosamond Pike), also an operative, but one who must figure out how to handle this impulsive, yet also canny guy. And so, it goes.
A few people have pointed out that the actual Lebanon and actual history in that part of the world have little to do with this movie. The city is devastated; bombings come randomly – but of course predictably, to push the story along whenever it needs a spark. The Arabs are tricky customers, who dwell in the shadows, have unkempt beards, and look furtive in the eyes. You can’t trust them, because they have no discernable loyalties and they won’t keep a bargain. And the game is to watch Skiles dance around them.
What’s disturbing about Beirut is not that it’s a clone of dozens of other films, but that at this moment in human history, when the world is so alert to such trespasses, Beirut comes along with profound disregard for the actualities. You’d think that filmmakers with access to the millions it took to produce Beirut might have the common sense to avoid the dreary cliché of other cultures as props.
Beirut has a retro sensibility. It’s set in the 1970s and ‘80s, but it feels like a movie made in the early ‘60s. It’s built out of sensational moments – a bombing, a car chase, a shouted argument, with a white American who is the only person in the movie who knows how the world works, whose smarter than anyone else – especially those with darker skin – and who’s the only person who can save the hostage and get away with it. All done with the pretty girl looking on in wonder, like an assistant whose skill is to wear the right clothing for a bombing.
So, at least some people in the world with the money to finance a movie like Beirut, still don’t accept the legitimacy of other human beings. Lebanon in Beirut is a theater set, a playground for these outsiders and audiences to play out exhausted fantasies of their power.