It takes three simple words to make any American nauseous: The Middle East. But if we think like Beirut, it wasn’t always so. As with Cuba before it, the region was seen as a Mecca (no pun intended). Where Americans were idealistic in their aims and righteous in their beliefs. But Beirut is fiction. A “classic” 70’s spy thriller. It’s just as flashy as those capers, yet is blown away like a million little lies in the desert sand.
The film opens as Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a U.S. diplomat, throws an elaborate party for friends and colleagues. Mason is jubilant and talkative. He has a beautiful wife. They’re adopting a son. All seems right, except when his friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) informs him that the boy Mason’s about to adopt, Karim, has a brother who’s a terrorist. A raid commences, and the boy’s brother steals him back, with Mason’s wife killed in the process.
When Beirut is clicking, it’s dependent upon Hamm and Brad Anderson‘s brilliant mimicry of the 70’s spy genre. Hamm is wonderful as the shattered Mason. The character so closely resembles his Don Draper Mad Men persona, that the role fits like a tailored suit. His performance is mixed with Anderson’s use of steady cam and hand held, as each new sequence tends to open with the hand held and then slowly peters down to strictly steady. The combination gives the film a frenetic, yet methodical pace.
That pace is coupled with the use of neon and Rosamund Pike‘s Sandy Crowder. The neon gives Beirut an artsy splash, but is also indicative of Mason’s dereliction: the abandonment of his friends and his drinking problem. In fact, Pike’s Sandy is his omnipresent uselessness. Sandy is intelligent, resourceful, and calculating. But she’s also a woman. And much like Mason, the raging alcoholic, she’s left on the outside spying in by her State Department colleagues.
Beirut in its simplest form is a rescue operation. It’s a rescue of Mason’s life from the alcoholic doldrums he’s tipped himself into. It’s a rescue of Cal, kidnapped at the hands of an adult Karim (Idir Chender), by Mason set 10 years in the future.
Yet, Beirut has a paternalistic vein coursing through it. Because the Middle East isn’t just a region, it’s a “child.” And it “needs” to be fathered by us or it will tumble into chaos. That’s the American scripture for the region, and it faithfully holds here as State Department officials and the PLO race for control, people like Gary (Shea Whigham), Donald (Dean Norris), Frank (Larry Pine), and to a point, Sandy, want to maintain American control in a place it’s not wanted.
Additionally, Mason and Karim’s relationship is a microcosm of this struggle. Prior to being taken away, Karim had a scholarship. He was to be taught as a Westerner. Once he’s taken away from Mason’s side (the western world), he becomes savage, scared, and infantile. Karim becomes the visage that America has of the region.
Consequently, the film never gives us much of a reason to feel for Karim. Then again, it never says why this mild-mannered boy became a terrorist. Instead, he quite literally, woke up like this. And because the film treats the character and region with paternalistic hands, we’re without their perspectives. We learn nothing of them. Which is a shame, because Beirut would have been a richer film had it taken the time to vocalize every side of the story. That decision would have taken it from facsimile to a necessary examination of not only America’s failures in the region, but also an emotional reason as to why so many young boys in the Middle East turn to bombs and guns.
But while the philosophy of Beirut is lacking, the film is generally entertaining. That is, until the end. Anderson and, screenwriter, Tony Gilroy are so preoccupied with neatly sewing up his film, that they takes it from mimicry to cliche. Instead, they would have been better served to have left well enough alone and allowed the open threads to dangle in the wind. But then again, a Westerner leaving well enough alone has never happened in the Middle East. Why should it happen now, I guess?