In an era of colossal movie budgets, Pixar, and entire “universes” of comic book characters, “Beirut” announces the comeback of a genre long missing from the movie screen: intense, delightful, yet completely forgettable spy thrillers. There is nothing wrong with making a movie that will not receive “Oscar buzz,” not break any records on opening weekend, and not cause its viewers to have an existential crisis. This is good old fashioned spy fun which checks every box for lovers of the Jack Ryan thrillers of the 90’s.
The “Beirut” protagonist is Mason Skiles (yes, really) played by the always-likeable Jon Hamm. The movie opens in 1972 pre-civil war Beirut, with Skiles, a US diplomat, hosting a lavish dinner party. His sideburns are long, his smile is wide, and his wife is adoring and beautiful. He’s even taken in a refugee child who they plan to sponsor. It’s only a few minutes later that the bottom falls out. The child turns out to have a terrorist big brother who shows up and ends Skiles serene Beirut life.
Ten years go by, and the former diplomat is now a troubled drunk who is barely holding it together back in the states. He seems to have given up on his once-great career, and has resolved to spend his middle age at a bar until a mysterious fellow appears with an envelope full of cash, a new passport and a mysterious request to return to Beirut that very evening for a speaking engagement. Claiming he will “never go back to Beirut,” Skiles changes his mind once the mystery man implies that this is less of a request, and more of a demand.
Once he arrives in Lebanon, Skiles is approached by a friendly woman, Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), claiming to be an attaché. She takes him to party, and then drops her façade almost immediately to reveal herself as a CIA agent, and leads him to a secret meeting with other agents and high ranking officials. It turns out, they need him in Beirut because his old embassy buddy, Cal, has been kidnapped. The mysterious perpetrators of this crime have requested to see former diplomat Skiles to arrange his release, a request that is frustrating and mysterious to the agency.
Skeptical of his prowess as a covert operative, and doubtful of his ability to stay sober, the CIA agents reluctantly agree to include Skiles in their mission to retrieve Cal. The action starts early, and never drags, with a high level of intensity in each character interaction. This is not a spy movie loaded with plot twists, and there are few surprises. Skiles is not in the CIA, and has no secret karate moves, he can’t break a man’s neck with one swift motion, but he can handle a fire arm when he has to, and he is quick on his feet, you can’t help but root for him. Apart from slightly confusing scene, the conclusion is very satisfying, and leaves you wanting to see a little more Skiles.
This is not a movie of great depth, it has no particular axe to grind, and it won’t leave you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled. It is a movie that set out a specific and deliberate plan to entertain its viewers for the full running time, and leave them happy they chose to see it. “Beirut” accomplishes this mission exactly, with nothing less, and nothing more. It is a return to a style of action thriller that depends not on high-powered special effects, or a deeply cerebral plot, but on sharp dialogue, easily identifiable bad guys, and big win by the hero.
Hamm is up to task as the protagonist, no doubt drawing from his “Mad Men” Don Draper character experience to show us all that is possible through functional alcoholism. Rosamund Pike is charming as the no-nonsense CIA agent with chic 80’s style, and the supporting cast is packed with favorite character actors like Dean Norris (with hair!) and Mark Pellegrino.
Tony Gilroy wrote the original screenplay for the movie almost 30 years ago, before he penned the Bourne films, but the movie was shelved out of concern for its focus on the troubled middle east. The depiction of Beirut in the film shows both the pre-war splendor, and post war destruction, carefully noting the devastation to its citizens and economy. There is much talk of the tensions with Israel, yet the film is careful to stay on task with its mission of telling a thrilling story set 36 years in the past, and involving no real people.
“Beirut” comes at a time in which one-off action movies are not granted the budget they once were, in favor of big franchise and superhero movies. Working with an indie-movie budget, Gilroy and Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) were able to remind us that good camera work, crafty writing, and careful location shooting can make an exciting feature without being part of a huge franchise.