Review: Israel Becomes Key Player In ‘Beirut,’ New Espionage Thriller Starring Jon Hamm

Director Brad Anderson navigates the labyrinthine machinations of the CIA, State Department, and Mossad

“Beirut” took quite a while (around 20 years or so) to make its way to the big screen, but it feels like a spiritual sequel to Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo.” Taking place in Lebanon in the early 1980s, the political/espionage thriller, written by Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” trilogy) and directed by Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”), dives into another turbulent chapter in the history of the Middle East with adrenaline-pumping results.


We begin in Beirut (obviously) in 1972 where Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a U.S. diplomat/cultural attache, is hosting a party with his Lebanese wife. Using the old charm and suaveness from his “Mad Men” days, Hamm is instantly the life and soul of the movie, navigating the room in a mix of English and Arabic, discussing the Vietnam War and other topical issues of the day while his coiffed hair and jutting mutton chops remind us that this is the early ‘70s. It may not be kosher, but you’ll come for the spy story and stay for the Hamm.


Darkness encroaches on Mason’s doorstep when a group of CIA agents arrives to question a young Palestinian boy he and his wife have been sponsoring, Karim. Turns out his brother, Rafid Abu Rajal, is a terrorist who had a hand in executing the Munich Massacre, the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered in cold blood by Black September (a militant faction of the PLO) after a botched rescue attempt by the Bavarian authorities. Before Mason can make a decision, however, Karim’s brother shows up to “rescue” his sibling and Skiles must watch his wife die in his arms.

Back in America 10 years later, Mason is a shell of the man he once was. He’s gone from a smooth-talking diplomat to an alcoholic union arbitrator. His hair is shorter, his skin is waxy, and his outlook on life is bleak at best. He wants nothing to do with Lebanon every again, but his old life rears its ugly head when an old CIA buddy (Mark Pellegrino) is kidnapped in Beirut and the kidnappers ask specifically for Skiles to negotiate the release.

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Against his better judgement, Mason returns to a Middle East that’s just as unrecognizable as himself. After history-defining events like the Yom Kippur War and Iranian Revolution, the region is a hotbed of revolutions, civil wars, and bloodied lines drawn in the sand—a powder keg ready to blow, especially when you take into consideration that the first Lebanon war is looming just on the horizon.

Compared to the footage of a peaceful and metropolitan Lebanon (taken in the early 1970s) shown at the start of the movie, the country is now a dangerous place and Anderson expertly goes to great lengths to show the contrasts between both eras. Tanks now trundle down the beautiful beaches, militias guard certain checkpoints with automatic machine guns, kids play on the extended guns of abandoned tanks, and many parts of the Beirut have been reduced to rubble.

With his only friend in the hands of terrorists, Miles must work with people he doesn’t trust, a stellar supporting cast of Shea Whigham (“Boardwalk Empire”) as Gary Ruzak; Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) as standout Donald Gaines, the actor rocking a curly hairpiece and thick-framed glasses indicative of the time period; and Rosamund Pike (“7 Days in Entebbe”).

Israel plays a big role when it is revealed that the kidnappers are led by Karim, who is seeking the release of his brother. Traveling to Tel Aviv, Skiles and Ruzak press the Mossad for the whereabouts of Rajal, sure that they’ve got him and won’t release him due to all the acts of terror he’s committed against Israel and its “Zionist agenda.” The sequences in Israel are short, but actually very funny in the way that Spielberg’s “Munich” was funny when that Mossad dude said “bring me receipts!” Even in the face of serious espionage negotiations over murderers, you can count on the Jews to hang on to their unique sense of humor.

Even so, “Beirut” does sort of paint the Jewish nation as a bad guy who’d like nothing more than to take control of Lebanon. Their secret services are depicted as ruthless and opportunistic and it might prove a little to biased for even the most casual of Zionists. True, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t be solved by a fictionalized Hollywood movie, but trying to say that the first Lebanon War was caused by the Mossad wanting to gain “the keys” to Beirut when Israel really invaded due to casualties on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border, is an overt, skewed take on the actual events. The film is more about Middle East geopolitics between the Arabs and Israelis (PLO vs Mossad) and the ghosts of their respective pasts than it is about the jeopardization of American assets undercover in the field. Moreover, the trend of taking a more “balanced” view of the ongoing struggles of both people is fine, but sometimes it comes off as more sanctimonious than even-handed.

All in all, the movie is a no thrills political thriller that captivates not through major action set pieces, but through the exploration of its characters and the emotional hurdles they must overcome to attain their goals. With dynamic lighting and warm colors, “Beirut” captures the look and feel of the early 1980s while utilizing some of the classic noir techniques that give the film the aesthetic of a classic mystery in a non-classic setting.

The film is now out in theaters.




Jon Hamm




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