The Art Schmart of the Deal Schmeal – Beirut

When I first saw a trailer for Jon Hamm’s latest outing, Beirut, I was interested. I wasn’t necessarily drawn in by the proposed story of a hostage negotiation, but Lebanese history is something I find somewhat fascinating, as my biological father was stationed there the day I was born in August 1982, two months after the main action of the film. I wondered if this would be an historic look at the Lebanon he saw. Now, I had no relationship with my father, and he’s dead now, but still there’s intrigue in the whole, “what happened and where did I come from” context.

When I saw the movie over the weekend, I remember enjoying it somewhat, but honestly, a mere four days later, I can’t exactly remember why. The film is very by-the-numbers as far as the story is concerned, and it’s full of tropes. It’s also a complete work of fiction set against the backdrop of post-civil war Lebanon, so I wasn’t going to glean any personal insight from it. So on the whole, I can say it was alright, but really forgettable.

Hamm stars as Mason Skiles, an American diplomat living it up in Beirut in the 1970s. After a terrorist attack kills his wife, he recedes to New England and becomes an alcoholic while working as a small-time lawyer handling labor disputes for the next decade. A man finds solace in the bottle after a personal tragedy? Surely you jest! This is just the first of many cliches along the way, followed by the CIA recruiting him for a crucial assignment back in Beirut, even though he swore to himself he’d never go back. Spoiler alert, he goes back.

Once on the scene at the American embassy, he gets the full gist. He was requested specifically to handle a hostage negotiation. The hostage in question is his best friend, Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), and the hostage taker is his former Lebanese ward, Karim (Idir Chender). See, Karim’s brother is a terrorist who apparently had a role in the attack on the Munich Olympics among other things. He’s the one who attacked Skiles’ house back in 1972, and in the process kidnapped Karim and converted him. Karim specifically requested Skiles because of their personal connection, and wants a straight-up trade of Cal for his brother, Rami (Ben Affan).

Joining Skiles in the endeavor is Sandy Crowder, played by Rosamund Pike. She’s an undercover CIA agent working as a staff hand at the embassy, and is essentially treated like garbage by her superiors. Sexual harassment in the 80s? Now you’re just making shit up! Anyway, it’s her job to ensure the mission succeeds, which Skiles makes exceedingly difficult by running away and evading tracking every time Karim gives him a lead on Cal’s whereabouts and condition.

There could have been a lot of intrigue in this plot, with Karim and Skiles using their previous rapport as a bargaining chip and really developing complex characters. Instead, Hamm turns on the Don Draper and just wheels and deals at his convenience, convincing everyone from the American Ambassador to officials in Israeli intelligence to just give him privileged information.

Hamm and Pike give decent performances, but it’s all in service of procedural dreck. What could have been a fascinating character study instead devolves into a weakly plotted conspiracy theory about someone in the embassy using Cal as collateral damage to give Israel free reign to invade Lebanon and put the Palestinians out of commission for good. The one plus with this turn is that there are no good guys. The Americans are bad, the Israelis are bad, the Lebanese are bad, and the Palestinians are bad. The problem is that only the brown people are treated like stereotypes in this equation.

Still, I did enjoy Hamm’s antics once things got going. It sort of wastes Pike at points because she’s there to prove she’s a certified badass, but at times just turns into a glorified – if frustrated – babysitter.

And that’s sort of the overall problem with the movie. It can’t just pick a path and stick with it. I’m not saying the story should avoid twists and turns, but it’d be nice to just have some consistency in character actions and motivation. Sometimes Crowder’s a BAMF, sometimes she’s a whiny baby who feels underappreciated. Sometimes the film hints at an attraction between her and Skiles, then it pulls the rug out from under the shipping by revealing that Crowder’s married, but bangs Cal on the side (he’s also married, with kids, and his wife shows up for a cringeworthy bit of scenery chewing), because he’s good looking and convenient. There’s complexity, and then there’s just not bothering to make a decision.

It’s the same with Skiles. Jon Hamms it up (see what I did there?), which can be fun, and it’s always cool to see him get one up on anyone, even though he gets his negotiating swagger back way too fast, given the film’s setup. But at the same time, why establish him as some sad sack alchie and then not have the booze really come into play? All we see is him with a drink in his hands sometimes. He never fumbles anything because he’s drunk. There’s no conflict with Muslim Karim because he has alcohol. There’s nothing, just the indelible image of Don Draper with his drink, only this time he’s not wearing a suit.

So yeah, on the most basic level I enjoyed this. At the same time, it’s full of holes and bad movie making decisions. And again, days later, the movie barely registers in my memory. The plot is elementary, and there are cliches to beat the band. Still, it might not be bad for a boring afternoon once it’s out on Netflix or HBO or something. Just don’t spend your money now.

Grade: C

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What were your folks doing the day you were born? Can we get Bryan Cranston to put on a hat and deal drugs from a 19th century opium den? That’d be so original!

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