“Beirut” is a complicated movie about complicated people in a complicated situation. (Bear with me.) Its narrative complexity is nothing if not constant. If screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s objective was to encourage audiences to pay attention to the details, then he’s probably succeeded.
In short: “Beirut” revolves around former U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a drunk and wayward “expert negotiator” who was booted out of government work at the tail-end of 1972. During the intervening decade, Cal (Mark Pellegrino, “Supernatural”), an ex-colleague of Mason’s, has been taken hostage in Lebanon. The hostages have requested that Mason be the CIA’s point person to forge a deal. The CIA operatives, namely Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) and Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham), reluctantly agree to their terms. Back in Lebanon, Mason is forced to confront his sordid past while also attempting to rescue his best friend.
There are more complications. In “Beirut” and Beirut, there always seems to be more complications. Under the direction of Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”), Gilroy’s screenplay takes the antithetical approach to “less is more.” Scene after scene, we’re given more names and organizations (and then acronyms for those organizations) than is probably necessary.
To fully map out the inner workings of this movie, you’d need to give each audience member photos, pins, and yarn to connect the dots throughout. You’d also need a flashlight, so that people could make amendments as “Beirut’s” plot breathlessly twists and turns. Anderson’s breakneck delivery of new information will either be thrilling or exhausting for prospective viewers.
Gilroy has a tendency to offer stories that take more than a single viewing to fully process. “Michael Clayton.” “Duplicity” and “State of Play” are all examples of films that can dazzle just as easily as they enervate. Mileage may vary. Although what’s lacking in “Beirut” is a solid through-line to keep people invested — “Clayton” had the cool calmness of George Clooney, “Duplicity” had the sexual chemistry of Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, and “State of Play” had, y’know, Helen Mirren.
At the forefront of “Beirut” is Hamm, who is now entering a new chapter in his career post-“Mad Men.” He’s a curious case: On one hand a tremendous talent, and on the other, a tremendous talent who has routinely appeared in inconsistent fare since putting Don Draper to rest. He does what he can in “Beirut”; Hamm is charming, quick-witted, can turn dramatic on a dime.
But the film has a tendency to undercut Mason’s livelihood, or lack thereof. He’s a man whose been stripped of both his partner and career, left now to work on middling low-level deals in middle America. Even when Mason is given the opportunity to return to the big leagues of the CIA, there’s a sadness to him.
He can hardly believe he’s been granted a second opportunity. He’s more confounded than grateful, though. The resurgence is a reminder of a former life he messed up; as a result he turns to the bottle. Mason’s drinking is not played for laughs, but it’s also not seriously examined. Gilroy bypasses the psychology of his central character, the how and why of Mason’s internal dilemma. There’s another film in “Beirut” where one could investigate how talented (and good) people make bad decisions, how people like Mason subconsciously self-sabotage themselves, preventing any sort of progress or growth.
Instead Anderson leans into the action-thriller of it all There are shootouts and explosions, city-wide chases and impressive stunt work. “Beirut” contains all the elements of a fun, snappy, pre-summer jaunt. And yet the film is actively in competition with itself. The tone is grim and honest when it wants to be, but not necessarily when it needs to be.
There’s a level of specificity to some aspects (the archival footage that bookends the film), and laziness in others (Mason’s familial ties to Lebanon). Mason may very well be saving his best friend, but we’re given nothing more than sunset flashbacks of a joyous dinner to inform that friendship. The characters’ consequences are more spoken than felt.
And the consequences of this movie are similarly sparse. Brad Anderson has three upcoming films in the next couple of years, and Gilroy (who originally penned this script in 1991) has rarely been without employment. Jon Hamm is Jon Hamm, and eventually a film will better utilize his abilities. All will be well for everyone involved. Sometimes gifted people make not-so gifted art.