By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK (CNS) — Every word matters in “Beirut” (Bleecker Street), an espionage thriller set in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war.
Negotiations are layered on top of promises and betrayals as American diplomats hope to exchange a hostage for a Palestinian terrorist who might be a prisoner in Israel. This is the extraordinarily rare intricately plotted drama for grown-ups in which gunfire, explosions and ethnic hatreds are secondary to matters of trust.
All sides receive nuanced treatment, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in dialogue. Rather, director Brad Anderson, working from a screenplay by Tony Gilroy, demands that the audience pay close attention. Gilroy devoutly believes that brokered deals with full government backing are worth pursuing.
Jon Hamm is Mason Skiles, who, in his time as a trade negotiator in 1972 — when Beirut still held promise as a multiethnic trade hub — saw his wife (Leila Bekhti) killed in a terrorist attack. He was arguing with American authorities at the time because they wanted to question his young ward, Karim (Yoau Saian Rosenberg), whose brother took part in the murders of Israeli athletes during that year’s Summer Olympics in Munich.
A decade later, Skiles is an alcoholic labor union negotiator in Boston, Beirut is a bombed-out shell, and the State Department recalls him to the city because his former colleague, Cal (Mark Pellegrino), has been taken hostage, and one of the kidnappers — the grown Karim (Idir Chender) — has requested Skiles.
Skiles is also assigned a CIA field agent minder, Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike). She’s supposed to prevent him from being taken hostage himself or going on an extended bender. The other American intelligence agents don’t trust Skiles at all, and keep reminding each other that he’s an alcoholic.
Life has embittered Skiles, but his idealistic core is not dimmed. If there’s a deal to be made, he will keep talking until it’s concluded.
There’s a bit of stereotyping of bearded Arab characters and vaguely Middle Eastern music. But for the most part, they’re used as set dressing for quick visual references.
The film contains mature themes, gun violence and frequent rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.