"BEIRUT" — 3 stars — Jon Hamm, Mark Pellegrino, Rosamund Pike, Leila Bekhti; R (language, some violence and a brief nude image); in general release
Set in early 1980s Lebanon, Brad Anderson's "Beirut" is a suspenseful thriller that follows the fictional story of a career diplomat who is called into a dangerous hostage negotiation to save an old friend.
We first meet U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) in a brief prologue set in 1972. Skiles is at the top of his game, living in a beautiful home in Beirut, Lebanon, with his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti). Beirut is an intersection of cultures and faiths, and Skiles and Nadia have recently taken in a young Palestinian boy named Karim.
But just as the family is about to host a lavish event, Skiles' CIA friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with terrible news: Karim's older brother Raffik (Mohamed Attougui) was a key figure in the Munich Olympics attack and Karim is wanted for questioning. But before Skiles has a chance to comply, Raffik arrives in a hail of bullets, grabbing his brother, killing Nadia and ruining Skiles' career in one dramatic flourish.
Ten years later, Skiles is far from international politics, back in the United States working arbitration between business owners and labor unions and descending into alcoholism. While he's been gone, Lebanon has fallen into civil war between multiple hostile factions, and the city Skiles left behind is largely in bombed-out ruins.
So Skiles is initially hesitant when the CIA calls him back for one last job. An extremist faction has kidnapped an important U.S. intelligence officer, and its leader has demanded that Skiles handle the negotiations. Skiles isn't convinced to get involved until he finds out the hostage is his friend Cal, and when he finds out who is making the request, things get even more interesting.
Punctuated by periodic fits of action, "Beirut" is mostly played out as a suspense thriller as Skiles must finesse his way through the U.S. intelligence community, the terrorists and several more interested parties in order to do his job. The story includes a number of twists and turns that keep things interesting while never pushing the level of believability too far.
Rosamund Pike joins the cast as Sandy Crowder, who is part of the multi-agency team responsible for getting Cal — and all the critical information he holds — out of terrorist custody. To do that, she must second-guess the intentions of the people she works with, including a shady intelligence veteran named Donald Gaines (Dean Norris).
Hamm gives a strong performance as Skiles, and he's surrounded by a bleak production that presents the ruined city as a violent, claustrophobic shadow of its former glory.
As a political thriller, "Beirut" doesn't feel like it has any serious political loyalties. Most everyone from the U.S. to the Israelis to the Palestinians are presented as competing factions pursuing their own interests, with no one truly elevated or favored. The only moral authority is given to Skiles as he works to save his friend in spite of the conspiratorial agendas all around him.
Taken as a suspenseful thriller, "Beirut" is a tense and engaging film, with just enough action to get the job done (its R rating comes primarily from profanity, as its violence is more tempered). As a historical portrait, Anderson's film will likely inspire more heated debate.
"Beirut" is rated R for language, some violence and a brief nude image; running time: 109 minutes.