Monday, 30 July 2018

Beirut (2018) - Movie Review




The plot: Former U.S. diplomat Mason (Jon Hamm) has succumbed to alcoholism after the death of his wife ten years earlier. He is contacted by his old colleagues to mediate a negotiation in Mason's former station Beirut, where a terrorist organisation has taken Mason's old friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) hostage. As he re-enters the political hot spot and tries to navigate the numerous factions vying for power, he could get a chance to not only save his friend but also find the person who took his family from him.

Hamm does a hell of a job here balancing rather annoying Hollywood alcoholism with his character’s constant place as the level-headed one in the room. Within moments of hearing him talk, the idea that this is a guy who makes peace between two erratic parties for a living is dead easy. Add to that the once-removed parental figure he has to play at points, and you have the kind of performance that forms a solid core for the narrative. Rosamund Pike as the ‘skirt’ holds up well enough in making that title into little more than the misconceptions of the others talking, but I’d be lying if I said she entirely escapes it.

Larry Pine and Dean Norris (complete with unconvincing hairpiece) work decently as the representatives of the U.S. in the midst of all this chaos, with Shea Whigham rounding them off in a very intense and morally-sketchy performance. Pellegrino establishes instant rapport with Hamm, bolstering the pull of Mason’s reason for being in this story in the first place while making for a vital part of the dramatic puzzle, and Idir Chender as the terrorist leader and Mason’s former ward works both in his own right and as the other half of Hamm’s sideways-tilted familial subplot. Their chemistry ends up adding a lot to the subtler emotional moments to be found here.

Between the typical depiction of the Middle East in American cinema and the real-world results of American intervention in the same region, this film’s main story already feels like it could fall into rather xenophobic territory. Hell, this is another situation where the trailer had gotten people riled up ahead of time, resulting in more cries of racism and white saviour narrative. Well, those folks can rest easy because writer Tony Gilroy manages to depict the Lebanese Civil War in a pretty tasteful way.
Right from the start, the film describes Beirut as being like an overcrowded boarding house that has no landlord. Within it, you have Christian, Muslim and Jewish factions restlessly co-existing with each other. No snap judgements are made against any one side, and the film doesn’t even make it a point to actively take any of those sides. Instead, it is presented as a complex web of conflict, betrayal and constant checking over shoulders; regardless of who is on whose side, it’s a minefield to navigate. As we see Mason’s day job, trying to come to a trade agreement between a company and its workers, it’s clear that this line of work is difficult regardless of the circumstances… so imagine what it’s like working in these conditions.

From that foundation, the film’s brand of political thrills bears serious fruit. Mason gets thrown into a situation where not only is he in the dark on what exactly is going on, what little he does know has to essentially be rewritten and edited by his superiors in order to keep anyone else from knowing. When dealing with this many local factions, from the PLO to the Christian militia to the Mossad to the Israelis, the bobbing and weaving between them all results in very heady plotting. This is incredibly dense and layered in how the narrative unfolds, with all the double and triple-crossing you would want out of a spy story, letting the raw and disorienting lack of clarity be the film’s foot forward. And yet, that confusion never translates beyond the screen as, for as complicated as the plot can get in places, it manages to stay lucid without undermining the tightly-wound mechanics of the story. If you’re able to sit through a film without being distracted by obvious stock footage (some of the establishing shots here are really jarring), you should be able to keep up.

All in all, this is a very skillful and tense political thriller. The acting is solid across the board, particularly from Jon Hamm who performs the absolute fuck out of his dialogue, the writing from Tony Gilroy both delivers on espionage capering and depicts the titular area in a remarkably sensitive fashion, and while the direction and camera work have their iffy moments, they still manage to keep tension levels high on a consistent basis. I can only hope we can stop with the trailer (over)reactions now, and be a little less quick to jump to the WSN conclusion, because films like this deserves to be experienced beyond any hair-trigger preconceptions.

It ranks higher than Mary Magdalene, as Beirut manages to hit cerebral musings as well as more visceral heart-racers; Mary Magdalene ultimately only got the former of those down. However, as much as I commend this film for the politically lucid piece of storytelling that it is, it doesn’t quite measure up to the respect I have for Tully. Yeah, that ending still sticks out for me, but it still contains material that is far more resonant and far more grounded than what we get here. This is good, but it’s not “you sure this isn’t a documentary?” kind of good.

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