In the tightly plotted espionage thriller Beirut (which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival), Jon Hamm has finally gotten a movie script that lets him strut his stuff. In the film, Hamm plays Mason Skiles, whom we meet in 1972 as a fast-talking Beirut-based deputy cultural attaché. He enumerates for guests at an embassy reception the challenges facing a city often called “the Paris of the Middle East” — the chief one being Palestinian refugees who, once allowed into Lebanon, promptly sought to “burn down the Israeli house next door.” (The PLO-led Munich Olympics massacre is foremost in his mind.) The last thing Beirut needs, says Skiles, is a retaliatory Israeli invasion or tension between Muslims and Christians. “As soon as the talking stops, the fighting starts,” he adds. But as he intends to keep talking — he’s a great talker — he’s not over-stressed. He’s in love with the city, in love with his wife, in love with what they’ve built together. The couple is extremely liberal. They’ve virtually adopted a Palestinian boy named Karim. With 20/20 hindsight, we know that this episode won’t end well. We just don’t know how not well.
Most of Beirut is set a decade later, when Mason is a small-time labor negotiator and a hopeless drunk. That’s well inside the actor’s comfort zone, but Hamm has clearly worked to purge Don Draper’s rhythms and posture. Even at Mason’s most stuporous, his motor runs faster than Don’s — he’s not as essentially private. Mason is bent over a bar outside Boston in the middle of the day when he gets word that his presence is kindly but firmly requested in Beirut. Returning to a city that bears little resemblance to the one he left (“You missed quite the civil war,” says the Englishman who picks him up at the airport), he finds himself in the middle of a hostage negotiation for a former friend and colleague’s life. The kidnappers — members of an ultraviolent Palestinian fringe group — specifically requested him.
The closely hovering CIA and White House operative think he’s a pitiful alcoholic who’s in over his head — a tough position for Mason but a great one for Hamm. The more that others underestimate Mason, the more we cheer him on, and it’s instantly apparent that even in his cups Mason is a hell of a negotiator. He quietly studies other people, which means Hamm must engage with actors in a way we’ve rarely seen from him. In Beirut, Hamm still doesn’t have the outsize personality we associate with major movie stars — a lot of whom are lesser actors. But he has focus. He can think onscreen. He can make you watch him closely, trying to keep up with the wheels churning in his head. I think he has fully arrived on the big screen.
Crucial, of course, is the script by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), a virtuoso when it comes to procedural-thriller structure and the hard-bitten dialogue that ends every exchange with a satisfying snap. Just as smart is Brad Anderson’s direction, which is clean and crisp but never on the nose, always slightly off-center to catch the threats on the periphery. (Björn Charpentier’s deep-toned — at times monochromatic — cinematography has both sweep and intimacy.)
The supporting cast is top-notch. Shea Whigham deserves to be in the front rank of character actors, and he has a good showcase as a CIA agent who’s too wound up to be completely effectual. Dean Norris (with hair and glasses) reins in his bluff personality to play a creepy-furtive embassy man. Larry Pine is a coolly believable ambassador trying to synthesize many disparate points of view. Rosamund Pike plays “the skirt” (Mason’s phrase) he thinks is supposed to use her wiles to keep him on a leash. She mocks that label and is sufficiently embarrassed to keep herself in check — and frequently lose Mason to Palestinians making private overtures.
By thriller standards, there’s a fair amount of substance — and scathing political assessment — in Beirut. Israeli intelligence types are none too attractive and the Palestinians (both on the violent fringe and under Arafat) just as unscrupulous. Gilroy throws in a bit of financial chicanery that probably doesn’t need to be there, and the denouement seems too pat, too obviously intended as a time for us to exhale. But if you know the history and are disappointed by how the film ends, just wait. There’s a montage of news reports and footage that covers what came after the fictional characters leave the screen. Beirut is a mid-disaster film, marking a pause after the hellfire and a prelude to the human catastrophe to come.