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A reek of imperial failure and War-on-Terror resentment: Beirut reviewed

April 21, 2018

12:42 PM

21 April 2018

12:42 PM

Is Jon Hamm’s name really Jon Hamm? Or is it a stage name, meant to telegraph his acting style? When an actor is called Slim Pickens, you know he’ll never play the Dane. Hamm is the name at the top of the bill in Beirut, and preserved pork is what he delivers, thinly sliced in the style of a television actor stretching his talents to the full two-hours, and with a rancid aftertaste.

Too bad, really, as Beirut has the elements and characters of a good thriller. That is because the elements and the characters are familiar from other thrillers. The scriptwriter, Tony Gilroy, has written four Bourne movies. For Beirut, he has scraped his barrel and, as if preparing a cinematic pig in a blanket, wrapped other people’s ideas around a kind of anti-Bourne. Imagine a finely chopped salad of Syriana and The Honourable Woman, lightly garnished with the smugness of John Le Carré, and arranged around lukewarm Don Draper.

Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a man with a name like a kitchen appliance. We meet Skiles in 1972, as he quips his way around the room at a US Embassy party in Beirut. Vicariously excited by the factional tinderbox that is Lebanon, he is emotionally tied in by his Lebanese wife Nadia and by Karim Abu Rijal, a Palestinian boy that the Skiles’ have informally adopted, and to whom they have given a tight perm as a sign of their faith in him.

Drink is taken, and the party ends badly. Just as the CIA warn Skiles that Karim’s brother Rami is a PLO member implicated in the Munich Olympics massacre, Rami and a minivan full of masked men turn up at the party. They shoot the place up and kidnap Karim, accidentally killing Nadia on their way out.

Ten years later, Skiles has remade his life. He is an arbitrator for the New England Chamber of Commerce and an alcoholic. Suddenly, it’s Chinatown, Jake. His friend Cal has been kidnapped in Beirut, and the kidnappers insist on negotiating with Skiles. The CIA pour him onto a plane. He returns to find Beirut half-wrecked by the civil war, and the Israelis are itching to wreck the other half because the PLO have taken over the south. There are checkpoints and car bombs, a big war is coming, and everyone has donned Eighties clothing in preparation. The vest and sweatband combo worn by the Christian Phalange militia are reminiscent of John Travolta’s back-up dancers in Perfect. Worse, the American Embassy is in the hands of stock characters, all with semaphoric names.

The ambassador is on the take, but we know that because his name is Don Gaines. The smooth CIA man who’s too close with the Israelis and tries to pull the wool over Washington’s eyes is played by Shea Whigham. The ambitious young woman (Rosamund Pike) is called Sandy Crowder. She is gritty, but she gets crowded out by the older men, until she turns out to be handy in a crowd. Rosamund Pike plays the role with a superb lack of conviction. This might have something to do with her character’s obvious debt to Carrie from Homeland. When she threatens the PLO in Arabic, she sounds like she’s musing over a restaurant menu, but already ate.

The kidnapper, of course, is Karim (Idir Chender, making the most of a breakout role as Bad Arab). Karim has kept the perm as a symbol of the closure that he needs, but he’s wearing the curls a little looser, to show the passing of the years. He wants to trade Cal for his brother Rami, who he believes is being held by the Israelis. The implication is that Karim wants to punish Skiles for dangling the promise of a better life in front of him, and then withdrawing it. The director, Brad Anderson, cannot decide whether this is because the United States is always an unreliable ally, or whether foreigners are unreliable and prone to outbursts of emotion and Kalashnikov fire. A bit of both, probably.

By the time Skiles tips the whisky down the bathroom sink and starts busting through checkpoints, the plot has long since gone down the drain. You could drive a minivan of heavily armed PLO men through the second half of the script without touching the sides. To make a deal with Karim, Skiles contacts his inner Don Draper, because negotiating with a Soviet-funded quasi-Maoist militia devoted to redeeming Palestine with their blood and Kalashnikovs is really no different from a delivering a competitive pitch on Madison Avenue. In the end, we meet Rami. He has been held secretly by the PLO, but not in solitary. By the look of him, he has had Karim’s hair stylist for company.

Skiles’ smirky, Art-of-the-Deal strategy produces a bloodbath. Yet the film ends with Skiles being asked if he’d like to stay on at the embassy. Under the credits, we see news footage of the Israeli invasion of 1982, the arrival of the US Marines, and Hezbollah’s truck bombing of their barracks. This meta-smirk of an ending, with its nod to Wag The Dog, reeks of imperial failure and War-on-Terror resentment.

The moral of Beirut is that foreigners have no morals. Contrary to American doctrine, they really are foreign, and some of them are mad men too. They cannot always be Don Drapered into a deal, and they won’t stick to it once it’s made. East is east, and West is best. Beirut is the wisdom of Rudyard Kipling, chained to a radiator.

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