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by Jay Seaver

"Interesting spot and story."
3 stars

A movie's name just being its location doesn't always mean that the filmmakers had a sense of that but not the story, but it's not a bad way to bet. Certainly, it's not a theory that "Beirut" seems keen to debunk; much of the film's first half is explaining to the audience that Lebanon in general and its capital in particular were nervously cosmopolitan melting pots before the civil war, and then touring the blasted remains afterward. It takes a while for the specific story to really kick into gear.

The initial explanation comes during a prelude, as American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) describes the history of the place to a visiting Congressional delegation when he receives a visitor - his co-worker Cal (Mark Pellegrino), warning him that Karim Abou Rajal, the Palestinian boy Mason and wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti) have taken in, has a terrorist big brother, and they want to question him now, since brother Raffik is suspected to be in town. It goes badly, and ten years later, in 1982, Mason is now mediating small labor disputes in Boston, but is recruited to give a lecture at American University in Beirut. He knows that's cover for something else, and it is: Cal is now head the CIA's head of station and has been abducted, with the kidnapper (Idir Chender) only willing to negotiate with Mason, demanding Raffik's release. The team on station - Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), and Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) - are reluctant to work with this burnout, but the pieces that don't add up soon threaten to snowball into a much bigger problem… Though that might suit some of the people involved just fine.

When all of this does start to come together, it's not really because the pieces are particularly fascinating or well-established; the opening establishes a setting, but not the relationships that are going to drive the movie. The opening lays a bit of groundwork for what would happen later, but not necessarily the bits that would wind up being most important; you'd think that Cal and Mason were more rivals than close friends from the prologue. Still, the economy to Tony Gilroy's script that can lead to not initially seeing that pair in full turns out to be fairly useful once it shifts from atmosphere to thriller; the plot may not be terribly complex, but there's enough to it for a couple of surprises and satisfying moments that are not exactly surprises. It also threads a needle that many period thrillers don't, creating a story that has high stakes without inserting too much into the actual history.

The film could perhaps do with a stronger lead. Jon Hamm is a fine actor but never became the sort of movie star who could make a character interesting on his own, and here he's stuck with a guy whose drinking characteristic is "drinks a lot, then empties his bottles when it's time to get serious" (alcohol is boring, writers!). He's got a fair ensemble to play with - a more expansive movie would give Idir Chender a few more choice moments as Karim, for instance, while the diplomats and spies find a range of He's more charismatic than the bulk of the cast, sure, but it's obvious from the start that Rosamund Pike is going to be this movie's not-so-secret weapon, picking up on Sandy's frustration at assisting men who aren't so smart or dedicated as she is, and entertaining when her character gets put under some stress.

And when that happens, director Brad Anderson can get things moving, coming to life as the pace quickens and the time for action comes. The last act of this movie is strong, all good staging and crisp editing trusting that the audience has absorbed everything leading up to the moment. Anderson finds a good balance between how a huge part of the tension in a situation like Lebanon's civil war is how disaster can come without warning with how, in a movie, it works best as a payoff to what had come before. It's pleasantly propulsive and Anderson doesn't need to exaggerate the stakes, a solid climax that makes what has come before stronger.

It's a good finale to a movie that skillfully drops the audience into a war zone. Audiences probably won't be clamoring for the further adventures of Mason Skiles, but that's fine - "Beirut" handles its top priorities well, and that's enough to make it a decent genre movie.

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originally posted: 04/21/18 12:14:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  11-Apr-2018 (R)
  DVD: 03-Jul-2018


  DVD: 03-Jul-2018

Directed by
  Brad Anderson

Written by
  Tony Gilroy

  Rosamund Pike
  Jon Hamm
  Shea Whigham
  Mark Pellegrino
  Dean Norris
  Kate Fleetwood

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