It was back in 1992 that screenwriter Tony Gilroy finished the script for "Beirut." It is good news for moviegoers but bad news for the world that the issues and concerns he raised in this tasty Middle East-themed geopolitical thriller are as relevant 26 years later as they were then.
Gilroy went on to write three of the "Bourne" films as well as write and direct "Michael Clayton," so his credentials for dealing with morally challenged characters searching for themselves in tense situations couldn't be better. In "Beirut," Gilroy not only has the assistance of talented director Brad Anderson but a proficient cast top-lined by well-matched stars Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike.
Set in two different time frames 10 years apart in its namesake city, "Beirut" feels deliciously inside, benefiting from its strong texture of reality, a sense of place both physical and psychological. Vividly shot by cinematographer Bjorn Charpentier with the Moroccan city of Tangier subbing for the Lebanese capital, the film's well-dressed sets so teem with local color you feel you could eat the atmosphere off a plate.
This is especially true in later sections that reveal devastating civil war damage. But, as is often the case with Gilroy films, it is that psychological reality that is most impressive.
Always entertaining, "Beirut" also revels in how complicated things can get in human terms in a city where the United States, Israel and the PLO, not to mention local Lebanese Christian, Muslim and Druze factions, all have boots on the ground.
Given the nature of the stakes, it is no surprise that no one we meet is completely aboveboard, that everyone has their own angles to play as competing loyalties, hidden agendas, murky back stories and ancient grudges all come into play. It's all as delicious, and as deliciously inside, as it sounds.
When we first meet American diplomat Mason Skiles (Hamm), it is 1972 and he seems master of all he surveys. Deputy chief of mission in Beirut, which means he ranks second only to the ambassador, Skiles, helped by his beautiful Lebanese wife and a 13-year-old orphan they have taken under their wing, is hosting a reception for visiting U.S. congressmen.
Suddenly appearing on the scene is Skiles' best friend, Beirut-based CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), who says "we need to talk" in a way that lets you know things are serious. In fact, in a very few minutes, this pleasant posting will have turned into a nightmare for all concerned, and no one's life will ever be the same.
Jumping ahead 10 years, to 1982, "Beirut" finds Skiles gone from that city and living in Boston, drinking too much and working as an often ignored mediator in rancorous labor disputes. All this changes, once again in an instant, when a stranger in a bar starts a chain of events that drags him back, very much against his will to Beirut, the last place on Earth he wants to be.
The folks who meet him in the U.S. Embassy, including intelligence operatives Col. Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris) and Ambassador Frank Whalen (Larry Pine) are not very happy to see him either. Skiles, we find out, is considered "damaged goods," a front-runner who stumbled, who went from being a favorite of "Kissinger to the crapper."
But Skiles is the person they have to deal with. His old friend Cal Riley, who's become a major CIA player and knows tons of intelligence secrets, has been kidnapped, and, for reasons unknown, Skiles is needed as negotiator.
A handsome, charismatic actor who has had difficulty finding film roles that suit him as well as his TV success in "Mad Men," Hamm is all he should be as the film's flawed hero, projecting a juicy combination of weakness and strength that involves us completely.
The same could be said for Pike's Sandy Crowder, nominally the embassy's deputy cultural attaché but in reality a smart and savvy intelligence operative who is Skiles' handler while he is in country. Excellent in everything from "Gone Girl" to "Hostiles," Pike raises the game of every film she's in.
As any fan of the Bourne films can attest, screenwriter Gilroy is a master at laying out a twisty plot, and Anderson directs with the kind of verve that enables almost all the twists to hit us with the force of surprise.
"Beirut" chooses to end with real world clips describing the Israeli invasion of the country that took place after the film's events, followed by a shot of President Reagan at a press conference calling for the same kind of "peace in the region" that has proved elusive from that day to this. Which is why even decades after it was written "Beirut" is as relevant as it is entertaining, and it is very entertaining indeed.
Rating: R, for language, some violence and a brief nude image
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In general release