Year Released: 2018
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Starring: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Mark Pellegrino
(R, 110 min.)
Genre: Thriller, Drama
“Two thousand years of revenge, vendetta, murder. Welcome to Beirut.” - Mason Skiles, Deputy Chief of Mission in Beirut
Beirut in 1982, once exotic and sophisticated, is now a chaotic rubble. But no more so than its prodigal son, fallen from diplomatic grace, who returns to rescue an old friend.
But first we see the man and the city ten years earlier, in their glory days when Beirut was the “bohemian Paris of the Mideast,” and Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) a diplomat at the top of his game. The elegant setting suits him perfectly, an embassy party where Skiles works the room with effortless panache, tailor-made comments for each unique listener.
And with this volatile, eclectic mix, that is no easy task. The room consists, as Skiles describes it with his acerbic wit, of “Christians in one corner, Muslims in the other corner, Jack Daniels in the middle.” A little like Beirut, already showing signs of fraying beneath its painted veil.
“A boarding house without a landlord,” Skiles labels it. But he is all smiles, the eternal optimist, whose visions for the city’s future are as hopeful as those for Karim, the 13 year old Palestinian refugee orphan he and his wife have taken under their wing.
Only the orphan has some hidden strings attached. He is the brother of a notorious terrorist, one of the original perpetrators of the infamous Olympic massacre at Munich. Karim, wittingly or not, is the serpent in this exotic garden, as Skiles finds out when his brother raids the place.
For once, the smooth diplomat cannot negotiate a peaceful surrender. Karin is taken. Skiles’ wife caught in the crossfire and killed. His world shattered.
Now back in the states, reduced to negotiating union disputes in third-rate hotel conference rooms, Skiles stumbles through negotiations in an alcoholic haze, yet surprisingly fluent even under the influence. His life is as dead end as the current arbitration, which ends with both sides walking out.
So when Skiles hops on a plane to Beirut, admittedly the last place on earth to which he wants to return, we more or less understand his motives. It is his final performance in a three-act tragedy, the inexorable turn toward self-destruction.
As many critics have noted, it is Jon Hamm (Don Draper of Mad Men) who anchors this “meat and potatoes” spy thriller. He skillfully plays a man at his zenith and a man at his nadir, but it is the climb back up the hill where Hamm displays his real talent. In the slant of his shoulders, the tilt of his head, and the resurfacing intellect behind tired eyes we see a man returning to life and purpose. Well, perhaps not all that. More like a man clawing his way back to a life, beyond the walking shadow he has been for a decade. Looking for a patch of honor, not enough to make a banner, but enough to bind old wounds and forgive old friends.
Some of the operatives in Beirut are straight shooters; at least as straight as anyonecan be in that business, but others are a cocktail of regrets, guilt, greed and corruption. Rosamund Pike as his C.I.A. handler/minder is tough and savvy, but vulnerable, too – not anything like her Gone Girl victim/seductress manipulator. A welcome turn and a fine addition to a talented cast.
Beirut rejects Bond’s glamor, Jason Bourne’s physical acrobatics (Beruit’s Tony Gilroy penned all three of those screenplays), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s muted greys, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’s unflinching portrait of moral compromise.
Or maybe it takes just enough from each to create a savory stew of its own, like the delicious Italian giambotte my grandmother concocted with leftovers.
But this fine film is certainly not a leftover. It is a solid thriller in its own right and a perfect vehicle for its talented and underused star.
Definitely worth seeing on the big screen.
3 1/2 drums
The first part of Beirut takes place in 1972, when that city was at its prime, “the Paris of the Mideast, a bohemian destination on a par with Monaco,” as critic Richard Whittaker reminds us. When U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles hosts a party at the U.S. embassy, you can almost smell the warm breeze, and the piquant aromas of the Lebanese delicacies floating by on silver trays.
And Skiles is in his element, waxing eloquent of the delicate ethnic/political balance that simmers in the wind. He is not a politician, but a connoisseur describing what he loves, the people and politics of Beirut. Too happy talking, in fact, to even sample the colorful array of dishes surrounding him.
Too bad he does not, as this evening will be the last happy one for a very, very long time.
Let’s enjoy a Lebanese dish for him. I have chosen this delicious radish salad for those home gardeners out there. This dependable root is easy to grow and quick to sprout even with our very cool, cool spring.
As they say in Beirut, Bil hana.
Lebanese Radish Salad
1 cup walnut halves
1 pound radishes, trimmed and sliced into thin rounds
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal(R))
1/2 teaspoon honey
20 fresh mint leaves
1. Toast walnuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking occasionally, until fragrant and a shade darker, 2 to 4 minutes. Chop coarsely.
2. Place radishes in a serving bowl.
3. Whisk oil, lemon juice, salt, and honey in a small bowl until combined; drizzle over radish slices and toss to coat.
4. Stack mint leaves, roll tightly, and slice crosswise into thin ribbons. Fold mint and walnuts into salad.