Beirut movie review: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike enthral in this sharply written spy thriller
Beirut, written by Tony Gilroy and directed by Brad Anderson, is a fast-paced, smartly produced, beautifully mounted spy thriller that will keep you enthralled throughout.
castJon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Larry Pine, Mark Pellegrino
What happens when the director of such brilliant films as The Machinist, Session 9 and Transsiberian collaborates with the writer of such blockbusters as the Jason Bourne series, Armageddon and the director of the fantastic Michael Clayton? Well, you expect sparks to fly. And although it may not be the best work of their career, Beirut, written by Tony Gilroy and directed by Brad Anderson, is a fast-paced, smartly produced, beautifully mounted spy thriller that will keep you enthralled throughout.
The film tells the story of Mason Skiles, a United States diplomat stationed in Beirut, Lebanon in the early 70s. Skiles is a well-respected man who has earned a lot of friends in the city, thanks to his genuine warmth and kindness. He and his wife have taken in a 13-year-old Palestinian boy named Karim, who was orphaned on the streets of the city. But when CIA learns that Karim has a brother named Rafid, who is a marked suspect in the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics, they send troops to bring the young boy in, hoping to use him as leverage to get to his brother. Skiles protests, and in the ensuing shootout at his villa, Rafid takes Karim away, and Skiles’ wife is killed in the confusion. Cut to ten years later, Skiles is brought out of retirement to negotiate the release of a former CIA friend of his, who has been kidnapped and held hostage by a group of terrorists. Skiles arrives in Beirut, and before he gets time to confront the painful memories of his wife’s death, he is thrust into a world of ever-changing loyalties, barter of assets, and betrayals in a city ravaged by the claws of war.
The best part of Beirut is that it is extremely smartly written. Full of sharp dialogues, tense situations and characters that you can relate to, it is really the script that takes the film to a whole new level altogether. Doing complete justice to the script is the technical team. A bombing scene at an academic lecture is so beautifully shot that it will make your heart skip a beat, even if the particular shot that I am referring to lasts for less than two seconds. In another scene, as Skiles is involved in a tense negotiation with hostage takers, a US Air Force stealth striker is dropping bombs in the horizon, and the targets are getting closer and closer every second. In another scene, as Skiles returns to his old home in the city, he is left heartbroken to find the devastation that ten years of war has caused to what was once a beautiful hilltop villa. These are beautifully written and even more beautifully executed scenes that successfully portray a sense of insecurity and dread that a war-torn city must live with at all times.
Björn Charpentier’s cinematography, in particular, must receive special mention. The aerial shots of the destroyed parts of the city, the dimly lit dungeons, the grime, sweat and dust on people’s faces – everything draws you into the film. The film also benefits from the crisp editing of Andrew Hafitz, who deliberately leaves very little time for the viewer to relax. There is no spoon-feeding here, only relentless information being hurled at you. If you can keep up, you are in for a treat. Hafitz’s editing also gives the film a sense of perpetual motion, as if everything and everyone is constantly changing – thus sticking to the themes of the story. I don’t have much to say about the background score though, for the simple reason that a story set in the Middle East need not necessarily have a score with Middle-Eastern influences. They could have tried to avoid the clichés in that department.
Dean Norris plays a pivotal role in the film, and is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal of a hard-as-nails CIA officer. Rosamund Pike plays an undercover CIA field agent who has been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that no harm comes upon Skiles, so that the mission of releasing the CIA hostage can be a success. Pike could have easily stuck out like a sore thumb in a city like Beirut, but the fact that she doesn’t is evidence to how good her performance is. Not for a single frame is she shown as an over-the-top trigger-happy spy. Instead, there is a constant fear plastered on her face – one that you can expect to see in the expressions of a rookie who is tasked with an important responsibility without being given the full details of the reason behind it. Jon Hamm as Skiles is brilliantly cast. Hamm projects his helplessness and his pain, his razor sharp intelligence and negotiation skills – all in turn, never once missing a beat. He is in complete command of his character, and makes us feel his frustration as the clock on the crisis keep ticking away dangerously.
If I were to be particularly finicky, I could say that despite all these remarkable traits, there is still something amiss in Beirut. For one, Karim’s character is something that I failed to wrap my head around as his motivations and actions were left unclear to me. In an emotionally charged scene inside a derelict building, Skiles asks his former ward – ‘Were we so wrong about you?’ – and that is precisely the question that I was left with, at the end of the film. It just didn’t add up. I was also a bit miffed with the way Pike’s character has been portrayed, and her relationship – along with the after-effects of that relationship – with the hostage.
But make no mistake, Beirut is a spectacular film that will take your breath away. The only reason why I was a trifle disappointed is because I have seen in the past the kind of exceptional films Brad Anderson and Tony Gilroy are capable of producing. In Beirut, they may not be at the top of their game, but boy, what a spy thriller they have given us!
Beirut is now streaming on Netflix.
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