A common refrain in any discussion about the movies is “They just don’t make them like they used to.” Riffs on that complaint, for example, were central to The Last Jedi’s sustained backlash. In most cases, the refrain is bullshit: the fallacy of nostalgia is means you don’t actually miss how things were, but how you felt back then. Beirut, the new thriller directed by Brad Anderson and written by Tony Gilroy, is the rare example of a film that is literally like the ones they used to make. Gilroy wrote the screenplay back in 1992, but it could not get made because of where the United States was in its Middle East relations. Indeed, the film feels like an artifact from a period where mid-range thrillers were more common.
Gilroy’s script depicts the city in two distinct time periods: before the Lebanese Civil War, and afterward. In the early scenes, cinematographer Björn Charpentier reminds us that Beirut was a diverse, cosmopolitan place. A man like Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) fits perfectly into that milieu: he is an American diplomat who likes to hobnob with fellow diplomats, dignitaries, and even spies. When we meet Mason, he is throwing a lavish party. The party ends in violence, with his wife dying at the hands of terrorists who are connected to the attack at the Munich olympics. It is a chaotic sequence, competently handled by Anderson, and suggests how the city’s dizzying factions will soon cripple it.
Now it is 1982, and Mason is a husk of himself. He is an oily corporate negotiator with a drinking problem and no future; one day an old acquaintance hands him a first class ticket to Beirut, and insists he visits for a lecture at the American university. Mason is no dummy – he knows the lecture is a front for something else – and soon he immediately meets several CIA handlers (including Rosamund Pike and Dean Norris). One of America’s top spies was kidnapped, and the hostage is one of Mason’s old friends. Beirut follows Mason as he stumbles through one negotiation after another, trying to decipher who he can trust and who has an ulterior motive.
The irony of Gilroy’s delayed script is that, back in 1992, Hamm’s role could have been a star-making. Hamm is an expert at smart, disheveled men who hide their inner wounds. There is a scene in Beirut where Mason plants himself at a bar, seemingly without options, and there is a familiar, borderline heroic way he handles the bottle. According to Gilroy, what matters in a country torn by civil war is not understanding the diverse interests, but cutting to the bottom line of what everyone actually wants. There are many negotiations – staged in English, French, and Arabic – and Gilroy shows glimmers of makes his masterpiece Michael Clayton so compelling: it is thrilling to watch smart people out-think their opponent.
The trouble with Beirut is that it is a touch too middling for the “smart thriller” moniker. It is a “smart thriller” insofar that there are no chases, no shoot-outs, and Mason does not carry a gun. The film is a product of its time because it has little interest in delving into the viewpoint of the Lebanese, Israeli, and PLO characters. With one notable exception, many of the Arab characters are closer to caricatures than nuanced players in a world of dangerous spycraft. Back in 1992, you could make a prestige film that is resolutely from the perspective of a white American man. Nowadays that point of view just feels myopic. Even a terrific modern spy masterpiece like Zero Dark Thirty had trouble overcoming this problem, and only accomplished it by being explicitly about American foreign policy. On the other hand, Beirut is about Americans meddling in another country’s mess, with too little self-awareness.
Before its theatrical release, pro-Lebanon trolls tried to discredit the film with negative scores on Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and YouTube. They claimed the film does not show the real Beirut, and the film is a total whitewash. I wouldn’t go that far: there are some important Lebanese characters, and a chunk of the film is not in English. Still, the cumulative feeling is of an early script, right down to the simple characterizations and scenes repeating themselves. Anderson does what he can – he is a terrific genre director, with thrillers like Transsiberian and Session 9 under his belt – but even he cannot overcome how this material is stagey to a fault. Beirut unfolds like an imitation of an older film, like what would happen if the Max Fischer Players went to Lebanon.