Jon Hamm established his career playing Don Draper, a master of persuasion with a penchant for a stiff drink. It’s hard to imagine that another actor was even on the shortlist to play Mason Skiles, a master of persuasion with more than just a penchant for a stiff drink.
But Mason, the protagonist of Brad Anderson’s nifty political thriller “Beirut,” is not an adman this time: He’s a U.S. diplomat, a profession that raises the stakes for Hamm’s ingrown talent for negotiation, ingratiation and influence peddling. We first meet him in the title city in 1973, where he’s holding court over a cocktail party of multifaith Lebanese power players. “The Muslims are in one corner, the Christians are in another corner, and Jack Daniels is in between,” he tells his wife. His back to the unsteady Beirut skyline, and sporting period sideburns that are almost certainly over-the-top, he holds an audience rapt with an analogy of Beirut’s compressed turmoil, comparing it to “a small boarding house without a landlord, where the only thing all the tenants have in common is their capacity for betrayal.”
Mason experiences this chaos firsthand within minutes, as a PLO-led invasion interrupts the party and leaves Mason forever changed.
We pick up his story 10 years later, where Mason, now un-sideburned but five-o’clock-shadowed 24/7, operates a two-man business in Boston negotiating labor disputes. Burying his past traumas in the local watering hole, he’s sworn off Beirut forever—until a former colleague shows up with a plane ticket to the city and an offer he can’t refuse. Lebanon is now in the midst of a civil war, and Mason is enlisted to broker a swap between a former American colleague, who was captured by the PLO, and an international terrorist, who is believed, perhaps, to be in the custody of Israeli secret service.
His Lebanese contacts—State Department emissaries played by Shea Whigham, Larry Pine and an unrecognizable Dean Norris—are shifty, the sort of political chess-playing elites who make decisions in smoke-filled rooms. Mason would rather focus his energies on Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), a CIA agent more trustworthy and far easier on the eyes than the puppet-masters in gray suits.
“Beirut” is blessed with a talented team of craftsmen behind the camera: Director Anderson is the underrated journeyman behind unnerving thrillers like “Session 9” and “The Machinist,” and screenwriter Tony Gilroy wrote and directed “Michael Clayton,” one of the most prescient features of the aughts. “Beirut” is fiction, but together they drench the movie in the plausibility of smart historical thrillers like “Argo” and “Bridge of Spies.”
The Beirut of this factionalized canvas is both specific and universal; it could be Syria two years ago, or the Gaza Strip during one of its many dust-ups with the IDF: Militia leaders with Kalashnikovs watching soft-core porn at makeshift checkpoints, women in burkas shot down on the street, not-so-distant bombs adding aural punctuation to tense negotiations. The sandy, color-drained city is as fractured as a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces will never fit.
There’s also a pertinent subplot about the radicalization of a young Muslim boy that cuts to the heart of radical Islam’s lure, and the reasons for and responses to it. But “Beirut” is perhaps best appreciated as a textbook showcase for Hamm’s specialized brand of no-nonsense problem solving. “It’s nothing that can’t be fixed,” he says in 1973, before his life is uprooted.
But 10 years later, the former diplomat, unshackled from the tact of his former profession, is brusque and impolitic, cutting off allies and rivals alike, his bullshit barometer on high alert. Both approaches work, and are exciting to watch because, well, Jon Hamm is working them. With this Mad man at the helm, diplomacy, whether renegade or traditional, is never boring.
“Beirut” opens nationwide today, including theaters such as Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, AMC CityPlace 20 in West Palm Beach, Silverspot Cinema in Coconut Creek and AMC Pompano Beach 18.