Friday, April 20, 2018


Not that Beirut is a bad movie, but there was a point during it when I wondered if I might rather see Brad Anderson direct Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike in a romantic comedy, if only because it's been nearly twenty years since he's made one. And I've got to wonder if the reason that Anderson never really seems to have made the leap from capable B-movies and TV to being a can't-miss filmmaker is that he hasn't done one.

Consider: His first feature to grab attention was Next Stop Wonderland, followed by Happy Accidents, and then after that, he did two genuinely harrowing movies in Session 9 and The Machinist. I don't know Anderson's process or approach, but it sure seems like shifting gears allowed him to focus on the contrast and really do something elemental on those. He's made good movies since then and done good TV (he was a big part of why Fringe was as strong as it was), but never anything to approach that 1998-2004 run. Since then, he's more or less done thrillers, and he's good at them - this one, for instance, shifts into a higher gear after a slow start - but none of them have been truly exceptional. It might be worth switching things up to see if doing so would produce a more memorable movie.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2018 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

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.

Full review on EFC

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