[This is a repost of my review from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Beirut opens today.]
Watching Beirut is like stepping into a time machine and realizing that even 20 years ago, people would have found this to be a tired retread for the spy-thriller genre. Brad Anderson’s film never misses a cliché it doesn’t love, and while movies can be charmingly old-fashioned, Beirut just feels old. The film moves with an artificial sense of urgency, pushing us along not because we’re invested in the characters or their story, but to give the illusion that what’s happening is important. Despite featuring a talented cast and a few nice moments, Beirut is a chore that tends to flip between painfully predictable and laughably absurd.
Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is a top U.S. diplomat living in Beirut in 1972. He thinks he has the place wired, and knows all the ins and outs until terrorists attack his party and his wife dies in the crossfire. Ten years later, Mason is a broken alcoholic brokering labor disputes when he gets called into help save his old friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino), who has been kidnapped by a terrorist group led by Mason’s old ward, Kasim. Kasim wants to trade Cal for Kasim’s brother, which is a problem since Kasim’s brother is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. Mason, working alongside a team of spies, must figure out how to make the deal and who he can trust.
Beirut plods along because it’s terrified of doing anything imaginative. The hotshot analyst who’s now a shell of a man because his wife died? The shadowy spies who can’t be trusted? The fact that the only non-white characters with names are all terrorists? It’s all been done, and if Anderson wasn’t going to bring anything new to the table, I can’t help but wonder why he or anyone else found this project appealing. Hamm is a talented actor, but he just spends most of Beirut looking tired and dishing out poker metaphors (I started cracking up when he starts shouting at his colleagues, “You need more cards to play!”)
When the plot isn’t boring, it’s ludicrous. At one point, Kasim wants a private meeting with Mason, so his solution is to blow up a bomb where Mason is giving a talk to students. So assuming the bomb didn’t kill or seriously injure Mason, he’s then supposed to get a message to meet up with Kasim (this assumes that Kasim’s agent, who was also in the room, didn’t also get killed by the distraction bomb). It’s overwrought, idiotic, and completely at odds with a movie that wants to be taken seriously.
There are brief flashes of a better movie where you see Mason wheeling-and-dealing, and Hamm seems to ease into the performance. But these moments are few and far between. We then lapse back into stock characters, and you find yourself wondering why Rosamund Pike, an immensely talented and Oscar-nominated actress, is playing a supporting role of Good Female Spy. There’s nothing particularly wrong with her performance just like there’s nothing wrong with Hamm or co-stars Shea Whigham, Dean Norris, and Larry Pine. But no one is given anything special to work with.
That lack of personality permeates all of Beirut. You can never shake the feeling that you’ve seen this movie done before and done better. There would be nothing wrong with a nice throwback, but the film is entirely without charm or imagination. There are plenty of good spy thrillers out there, so why waste your time with one that barely exists?