BEIRUT opens before the Lebanese Civil War with U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), on the last good day of his life, using a brilliant analogy to explain the political situation in Lebanon to his party guests in that eponymous city. Even the way the guests have arranged themselves, as Skiles put it: Christians on one side, Muslim on the other and Jack Daniels in the middle, reflects the zeitgeist that includes protestations from the Americans that they don’t want to be a permanent presence there. It’s the perfect introduction to both the man’s intellect and to the hopeless conundrum that is the country that will mark him forever. His next move, the one where his heart will rule his head (and his otherwise flawless political instincts), will prove to be his downfall, and a damning object lesson for us about making that mistake as the story unfolds.
That moment of sentiment costs him his beloved wife, his career, and his peace of mind. Ten years or so on, he’s back in the United States, barely scraping by in a haze of alcohol, when the government taps him for a special mission to broker the release of a CIA agent being held hostage back in Beirut. The money is good. Too good. Plus, the Lebanese kidnappers have asked for Skiles by name, even though he’s been out of the game for a decade. Adding a complication is the fact that the hostage is Cal (Mark Pellegrino), Skiles erstwhile best friend who played an unintended part in the tragedy that sent Skiles into a tailspin.
Tony Gilroy’s script is a literate excursion into chaos. In the middle east of 1992, allegiances are the most ephemeral of commodities, and intelligence, the military kind, the most valuable. Nothing is direct, from the government’s conscription of Skiles via an old acquaintance, to the blandly smiling embassy officer Sandy Crowder(Rosemary Pilcher), who is unshakeable in pressuring, ever so politely, Skiles into leaving a Beirut bar with her to go to the destination that they both know is as fictitious as the cover story that brought Skiles back to Lebanon. What is so masterful about this writing is that we already know that nothing is what it seems, but the reveals are still surprising, and it’s not just the sudden gunshot to the back of the head from a completely unexpected source, or the explosion that comes out of nowhere. There are emotional undertones that are as compelling as the usual espionage tropes: Cal’s wife confronting Skiles with brittle vitriol and Crowder’s personal as well as professional obligations finding both resonance and dissonance.
In the center, along with the Jack Daniels, is Skiles. Gilroy’s film, for all its intrigues, is at heart a character study, and Hamm dares much with a character who insistently defies anyone to get too close, and is equally, if not quite as successfully, determined, not to care about anyone or anything. In the end, the mystery of what Skiles is doing at any given moment is what drives the film, and our interest.
BEIRUT is understated in his suspense, but it’s perhaps all the more effective for that approach as it explores its cynical view of realpolitks of the region. There are no principles, only deals to be struck, and advantages, however fleeting, to be gained. What’s left is the persona and the particular, and making peace with one’s own soul.