The espionage thriller as a genre had its golden age during the Cold War – so much so that recent entries in the genre (Atomic Blonde, Bridge of Spies) are often deliberately retro in their setting. Modern geopolitics are less cut-and-dry than East v. West, communism v. capitalism, and studios – rightly or not – don't seem eager to bank on the public's grasp on political nuance. Perhaps that's why Beirut, a film set during Lebanon's 15-year civil war, says little about that conflict and even less about Beirut.
The film starts out in 1972, when American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) and his wife are living and schmoozing in Beirut. It doesn't take much time for tragedy to strike as the terrorist brother of a young man Skiles has taken under his wing stages an attack in order to enact a family reunion. Fast-forward 10 years, and the CIA convinces Skiles to return to Beirut in order to negotiate a prisoner swap after his former best friend, Cal (Mark Pellegrino), is captured by one of the myriad militias involved in the war.
As Skiles, Hamm is as watchable as ever, echoing some of his work as Don Draper on Mad Men. When we catch up to him in 1982, the beaten-down Skiles drinks enough to make it not look fun anymore. And after the CIA ropes him into their scheme to get the captured spy back, he's effective at portraying a man fully aware of both how far he's out of his depth and how little he wants to be involved.
Sharing top billing with Hamm is Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike as Sandy Crowder, a CIA operative assigned to handle Skiles. Pike, unfortunately, gets very few opportunities to do anything interesting with the character. Notable character actors Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) are similarly squandered as two higher-ups coordinating the mission. Most of the depth of their characters' stories is delivered second-hand, while they're off-screen.
The actual caper is interesting enough as Skiles has to navigate different interests – the CIA, the PLO, Mossad – to secure the release of Cal. To its credit, the film mostly avoids demonizing or lionizing the disparate factions. Everyone involved has conflicting motivations and no qualms about using extra-legal tactics to get what they want.
But in titling the film Beirut, one would expect that city to play more of a factor in the final product. All we see are bombed-out cityscapes and roadblocks manned by one militia or another. Some critics have already decried the movie based on the fact that the film didn't even bother to shoot in Lebanon, opting instead for a production based in Tangier, Morocco. And no Lebanese actors – and barely any Lebanese characters – appear in the film. These are odd choices for a studio to make in a time when so much energy is expended on cultural authenticity – or decrying the lack thereof. It would be interesting to see if there would be as much outcry about the lack of Lebanese representation in the film if the studio had stuck with the original title, High Wire Act. As it is, though, there's little in Beirut to appease critics of the film's authenticity.