Rosamund Pike and Jon Hamm are always wonderful to watch, and here in Tony Gilroy’s zigsaw plotted screenplay they are superb. Gilroy’s Bourne Trilogy is action driven and so is his latest work “ Beirut”. We find our protagonists in Lebanon in 1982. Civil war has the city divided into “sections like a pizza”. Mason Stiles (Hamm), a former U.S. diplomat, is negotiating labor relation deals for a Boston insurance company. A strike is on the table, but this is small potatoes for the exasperated Stiles. He is an alcoholic with a back story.
Flashbacks to 1972 Lebanon show Hamm in sideburns and giving a cocktail party for foreign diplomats. He wants to create a fair playing ground for a regional economy. We meet his wife and see their “adopted child” Karim, a 13 year-old camp refugee, serve canapés on a silver tray. Hamm is fluent in Arabic and charming. Hamm’s Stiles is an associate director U.S. Foreign Affairs, and a Middle East specialist.
As the house reception revs up, Stiles tells a U.S. Congressman that there are Christians in one corner of the villa, and Muslims in another, and Jack Daniels in between. His smile and his metaphors delight his guests. “Think of Beirut like a boarding house without a landlord…tennants arguing…” This was Beirut before the Civil War.
Twenty-five dinner guests begin to be seated as Mason’s friend Cal pulls him in front of a family photo of Henry Kissinger, “We need to talk right now”. “ They want Karim for questioning”. Hamm is effortless as the father protecting his son. His wife, Nadia is seen hugging the boy in the kitchen as we learn from Cal that Karim’s brother is a terroist with ties to the Munich slayings. Cal produces a photo that shows Karim and his older brother, Raschid together. Mason continues to protest in disbelief as Cal tells him his bank account has already been frozen, and that the CIA wants Karim brought to the front of the house, now. In the next breath of protest, Mason Stiles witnesses a band of terroists enter his home and take his wife as hostage. Amid machine gunfire and screaming guests, a spray of bullets has wife Nadia dying in Mason’s arms.
Fast forward ten years later to 1982. Images of rain, windshield wipers, half eaten jelly donuts, and cigarette butts set the scene. Mason is drinking from a flask and dozing in a conference center parking lot in an old Pinto. A security cop tells him to sleep inside. We see Hamm shave, adjust his necktie, drink again from his flask, and splash more into his coffee before he ties his shoes. He is working for an Boston insurance company and negotiating with a tough union, a far cry from the U.S. diplomatic corps.
Later, as Mason sits at a bar, a former acquaintance brokers a deal. He offers $6,500 for Stiles to return to Beirut as an American University guest lecturer. We know the CIA is involved, and Gilroy’s screenplay with its intricate plot takes off: violent, intricate, and at times profound. Yet, lust, booze, and greed are in control, as much as ideological terrorism.
This is not totally a gender privileged male-action film, for Rosamund Pike, as CIA operative Sandy Crowder , knows the ins and outs of company safe codes, satellite imaging, and office and faction politics. She is more than her title: U.S. Deputy Attaché. Funny and perceptive, she undersells her position with the ironic line: “ I’m just a skirt in a car taking an irritated tourist back to his hotel.” I ,also, love all the hidden communicaies. Sandy picks up on Cal’s mantra of , “ Pray, Love Only” as an acronym for the PLO. Mason understands what fast talking Cal is saying when he states that “ He feels safer on a Sandy beach..safer in a crowd.” Sandy Crowder is to be trusted. She can lie well, and lets the corrupt head of operations think that Stiles is damaged goods.
Tension turns into wild action when Cal is taken hostage by radicalized 23 year-old Karim. Karim wants his brother released from captivity and exchanged for Cal. ~ a straight up transfer. The problem arises in that no one is certain who has Raschid: the Israelis, the Christian Militia, or the PLO, or a maverick group. And then, hypothetically, he may be lost in the system. Cal has also been a “ thorn in the CIA’s side for years.” Intrigue and conflicting agendas circulate with tornado wind force. They have six hours to make the trade.
The plot line and writing are terrific. The mirror scenes with Hamm are great for the audience seeing that Mason is not secure in who he will ultimately be. Booze tempts at every corner. Hamm’s eyes and the sheen of his skin put a face on the demons.
One of the most nuanced and touching lines comes from Karim as he tells his long ago adopted father that he was “not a terrorist then, but in the morning.”
Glances at children and wedding couples trying to have a normal life in a fire-bombed and bulletproof ridden setting are baffling to us. Children hang on the guns of armored tanks like they are swing sets. One-armed dolls are held. More emotional nuances come from Alice, Cal’s wife. Her anger and feelings of abandonment are destroying her. “ I packed up Nadia’s clothes. If Cal dies, you pack up for me. I think that is fair.” Mason chastises her depression. “ You have the girls ( her children) to think about.” Alice fires back with “ You say that like you know them.”
The skills of Stiles as negotiator are never side-tracked. The poker playing PLO, the consort spy, the pay off to the young transfer soldier~ Nothing is clearly cut. “What would it take?” is the constant query. Brokering deals is always in play. At the film’s close, the frame shows news caster Peter Jennings; and we sigh at how much we don’t know about the world we live in. The American flag flows at the side of the last frame, and we sigh again.