Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is a negotiator. In 1972, he works for the U.S. government in Beirut. At a dinner party, he sums up the situation in Lebanon by calling the country a “boarding house without a landlord” that was thrown into confusion when the Palestinians “moved in.”
He continues talking in this politically-savvy way, as if he understands that the country is headed toward civil war. When he is brought back to Beirut 10 years later, however, he seems surprised at what he sees when he touches down.
In 1972, at the aforementioned dinner party, a person close to him is killed in the crossfire of a shootout. In 1982, Skiles is tasked with hostage negotiating with the parties involved in that shootout.
Beirut is one of those political thrillers that involve a lot of dry, hushed conversations in back rooms. Sure, there are also some animated and emotional conversations held out in the open for the sake of a little variety.
But it’s all a lot of talk. Actors get a chance to play it slick and sly. And it all feels staged. Visually-dynamic moments are few and far between. Everything else is told in tight closeups, sometimes at angles too awkward to avoid being distracting.
In terms of the script, there is plenty of intrigue. Characters are all playing the same game of chess, but there are more than merely two sides to play on. Much of what screenwriter Tony Gilroy presents here seems like it would read great on paper.
On screen is a different story. For every scene that hits its stride rhythmically, with characters bouncing lines of dialogue off each other without missing a beat, there is a scene that grinds things to a halt.
There are scenes in the film where not only is it evident that what is being said is dialogue read off a script, but it feels like what we’re watching is a first take. The level of unnatural delivery in these scenes is just at that high a level. Exhibit A is a flashback involving Hamm and hostage-to-be Cal (Mark Pellegrino).
At its best, Beirut is chatty dramatic thriller with a soft current of electricity under its feet. At its lowest moments, though, it comes off as a stagey cluster of archetypical characters playing into the conventions of their archetypes. For one, you’d have to be watching a movie for the first time to not foresee how Skiles’ alcoholism is going to play out.
There’s a lot left wanting with Beirut. For all of the competency in (most of) the script and in the performances of Hamm, Rosamund Pike, and Shea Whigham, it is surprising to behold how unbalanced the finished product is.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)