Brad Anderson’s Beirut doesn’t quite make foreign espionage look fun, but it shows how it might appeal to the sort of masochist who’s also an adrenaline addict. That’s an important distinction made by Anderson and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who understand that it’s not clever banter or gadgets that make people want to risk their lives doing thankless work for which they’ll never receive public credit. Instead, it’s the constant movement, the high stakes, the endless opportunities to outsmart their opponents.
That’s why Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) returns to Lebanon in 1982 for the first time since his wife died in his arms a decade earlier. Then, Mason was an American diplomat trying to stay friendly with Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, and in the film’s opening scenes, he describes his job with a casual, almost mischievous tone. Negotiation is a second language for Mason and a source of constant excitement and stimulation. But, one night, Palestinian terrorists kill Mason’s wife, Nadia (Leila Bekhti), and take Karim (Yoau Saian Rosenberg), the 13-year-old Lebanese orphan the couple hoped to adopt. Karim’s brother, Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), helps carry out the attacks, which makes the boy’s abduction a family reunion as much as a kidnapping.
Over the next 10 years, Mason leaves the U.S. government, becomes an alcoholic, and opens a small mediation business in Boston where he settles local labor disputes. His clients are no less difficult to manage than politicians, but the stakes are lower, which wears on him. He looks like a distressed babysitter watching business and union leaders throw fits at each other. So when he’s approached in a bar with an offer to return to Lebanon for what’s billed as a speaking engagement, he doesn’t need much convincing. Once in Beirut, Mason learns that an old colleague, Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), has been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists, and Mason has been asked to negotiate a deal for Cal’s freedom that involves Karim and Abu Rajal.
Mason shares DNA with Hamm’s Mad Men character, Don Draper. Both men are exceptionally talented and equally troubled, and they benefit from Hamm’s talent for facial expressions that try to say one thing—surprise, disgust, confusion—but can’t help underlining that thing with fear and sadness. They’re the expressions of men who want to believe they’re in control of their lives but can’t shake the feeling that they have no idea what will make them happy. That’s probably why Mason, like Draper, is so good at his job. When Mason gets to work, his existential weight becomes a battering ram. And when Hamm gets to work, he can locate the intersection of trauma and existential angst with incredible intensity. But he doesn’t have much space to do that here, because he’s working for filmmakers who don’t like to linger.
Beirut locks into place when Mason is at the negotiating table and it delivers on the simple thrill of watching him stay two steps ahead of everyone else in the room. Those scenes are too brief, and outside of them, the film bides its time, but doesn’t quite waste it. That’s because Gilroy combines a journalist’s curiosity with a screenwriter’s sense of rhythm. His dialogue gestures toward the cleverness of Hollywood spy films—the rapid bursts of information characters have the miraculous ability to dispense and absorb, the way people never stumble over their words and always know what to say—but it’s a somber, reflexive cleverness, the kind individuals acquire when they’ve chosen a profession so consuming only their colleagues can understand it.
That tension can rewire your emotional circuitry, and there are a few, bracing moments when Anderson’s film seizes on it, like when a C.I.A. agent lets out a deranged laugh after driving a van through a Palestinian barricade and avoiding the bullets fired at him and his companions. But Beirut isn’t the exclamatory type. It’s not the slow-burn type either. Instead, it falls somewhere in the middle, moving at the pace of endless, stressful, relentless work. The kind you have to be a little crazy to love.