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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Beirut

Solid stuff but, I hate to say it, they made the wrong film.

This review is also on Channel 24

What it's about

The year is 1982 and it is ten years since the day that Mason Skiles' life fell apart. As the US ambassador to Lebanon in the early 1970s, Skiles and his wife were living the high life in Beirut until she was killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by the brother of the young orphan, Karim, who was living under their care. Now an alcoholic, working as a small-time labour negotiator, Skiles is called upon by the CIA to once again head back to Beirut to secure the release of an old friend: a CIA operative with in-depth knowledge of the Agency's operations in Lebanon who is being held by a renegade group of terrorists with a single demand, the release of the very man responsible for the death of Skiles' wife.

What we thought

The very definition of solid, Beirut, which is written and directed by veteran scribe, Tony Gilroy, is a perfectly competent and professional hostage-thriller. And, yet, that's kind of the rub. Here's a film that knows exactly what it's doing, that barely puts a foot wrong but is, in many respects, the cinematic equivalent of a cleanly produced and expertly played soft rock song that, for all of its professionalism, resolutely refuses to make much of an impact at all.

It isn't simply that we've seen this sort of thing before, though we certainly have at that, but that we've seen it in this configuration time and time again. From the faintly Middle-Eastern soundtrack to the paint-by-numbers, shaky-cam action scenes to the barely-there characterization of everyone but the one or two (and, crucially, American) main characters, Beirut goes from familiar to tired in almost no time at all.

Yes, it's always great to see John Hamm in a lead role and Rosamund Pike gets a chance to redeem herself after the whole débâcle of Seven Days in Entebbe – a film that's something of a sister production to Beirut but is about as incompetent as this is competent – but even they're nowhere near enough to obfuscate just how derivative and uninspired Beirut is. It's certainly possible that fans of the very well-trod terrorism-thriller genre will find the basic competence inherent in every frame of the film to be enough to capture their hearts, just as it is entirely possible that those who haven't been subjected to an endless stream of OK thrillers will even be thrilled by Beirut but, personally, it left me pretty cold.

What's most frustrating about it, though, is that this is a film that is set at a point in Middle Eastern recent history that all but begs for a good story to be told about it. Beirut is set in Lebanon mere months before the Israeli-Lebanon War, where Lebanon was divided between heavily-armed Islamic and Christian groups; where Palestinian militants like the PLO used the country as a platform against Israel and where Israel was always just a car-bomb away from declaring full-blown war on the country precisely for hosting those same Palestinian militants. It's a period that would define Israel, Lebanon and their neighbouring countries for decades to come; right to this very day, in fact. And yet, all of this is little more than background colour to a story that is nowhere near as interesting or as compelling as what is going on around it.

It's an especially interesting contrast to the quite brilliant comic book series, the Sheriff of Babylon by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (trade paperback and hardcover collection are available of the first year, with more hopefully coming down the line), which similarly uses a particularly noteworthy period in Middle-Eastern modern-history as the setting for a genre piece: in this case Iraq in 2004 for a murder mystery. What separates Sheriff of Babylon and Beirut, though, is that King uses the conventions of a classic whodunit as a way into the complexities of life in Iraq in the months following the fall of Sadam Hussein; he understands where the real story is. Beirut may be hyper-competent or it might be incredibly derivative but its greatest sin is exactly this: it failed to spot the story it should have been telling.

This may fall, it's true, under that horribly lazy trend of criticizing a film for what it isn't, rather than for what it is (hello, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) but Beirut actually presents us with the more interesting story and then proceeds to ignore it anyway. That's rather different and it's something that I, for one, have some trouble forgiving.




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