Espionage thrillers have it rough these days, what with contemporary headlines beating anything Hollywood can cook up. Still, Beirut has an undeniable retro appeal: It’s 1982 in Lebanon, the eve of Israel’s invasion. A hostage situation is pulling Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a former U.S. diplomat in Beirut, back into a spycraft shitstorm he’d practically kill to avoid. He’s been mediating low-level labor disputes in Boston, spending his spare time in bars using booze to blast away memories of what happened to him on the job a decade before.
Flashback to 1972, when Mason and his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti) took in 13-year-old Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), an orphan refugee. What they didn’t know was that Karim’s older brother, Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), was a Palestinian terrorist – and will turn their lives upside down. It’s a recipe for tragedy that predictably ensues and marks Mason for life. Now, 10 years later, the higher-ups want him back in a Beirut ravaged by civil wars; they have one last mission. It seems that CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), his best friend back in the day, is being held hostage. Mason is just the negotiator to get him out.
Why him? Because – SPOILER ALERT! – the kidnappers are led by Karim (Idir Chender), no longer a kid and eager to trade Cal for the release of someone who … let’s just say the list of atrocities this person’s committed in the name of Palestine has made him notorious. If you’re thinking that twist sounds contrived, not to mention reductive of the Muslim world, you’re not wrong. But Beirut is not the first movie to use global politics to goose along a talky plot, and director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian), working from a script by Bourne spy master Tony Gilroy, is an expert at filling in the blanks. And there’s a cabal of CIA and State Department suits, played by Dean Norris, Shea Whigham and Larry Pine, eager to bury Mason in red tape. His only ally is Sandy Crowder (a terrific Rosamund Pike), a cultural attaché with a secret agenda that belies her gancy description as “the skirt” meant to divert Mason when needed.
Anderson packs the film with atmosphere spiked with intrigue. And Hamm gives his role a James Bond-meets-Don Draper appeal, tossing off one-liners with a weary insouciance. His scenes with Pike give the movie a resonant power it wouldn’t otherwise have. But the characters resist deepening in favor of propelling a story that is too often content to travel familiar ground.