by Peter J. O'Connell
Beirut. Released: April 2018. Runtime: 109 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence, some language, and a brief nude image.
At the party that begins Beirut, directed by Brad Anderson, the film's protagonist, Foreign Service officer Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), describes the city that provides the title as a “boarding house without a landlord.” That opening scene takes place in 1972, when Beirut, the “Crossroads of the Middle East” and home to a variety of religious, political, and ethnic groups, was a relatively peaceful place, often a vacation destination.
That would all change in coming years, and we get a taste of what is to come when Skiles' friend, Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), a CIA officer, tells Skiles that Karim, a 13-year-old Lebanese boy supposedly without a family, whom Skiles and his wife (Leila Bekhti) have been caring for, has a brother, Rami (Ben Affan), who is a terrorist responsible for the Munich Olympics attacks. The affable Skiles is shocked at this news but then horrified when Rami appears, shoots up the party, and takes off with Karim. Skiles' wife is killed in the attack.
Ten years later and back in the U.S., Skiles has become an alcoholic and a corporate negotiator in labor disputes. An old client (Douglas Hodge) approaches him with a request from the U.S. government that he return to Lebanon to deliver a lecture. When he arrives back in Beirut, now devastated by years of civil war and terrorism, Skiles meets three State Department officials—Gaines (Dean Norris), Ruzak (Shea Whigham), Shalen (Larry Pine)--and CIA officer Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike). The officials inform Skiles that Cal Riley has been abducted in Lebanon, and his kidnappers have requested Skiles to negotiate Riley's release. That was the real reason that Skiles was asked to return.
Attempting to pull himself together and do what he can to rescue his friend, Skiles finds himself in the midst of dangerously overlapping intrigues that bring him back into contact with Karim and Rami, involve Israel and the PLO, and are complicated by self-serving maneuvers by Gaines, Ruzak, and Shalen. Furthermore, Skiles has to deal with the bitterness felt toward him by Riley's wife (Kate Fleetwood) and the beginnings of a warm relationship with Crowder.
The film handles all of this in an unpretentious, competent way, without unrealistic extremes of either heroism or villainy. The acting, particularly by Hamm and Crowder, is convincing, and the themes are thought-provoking. Beirut is worth a visit.