Jon Hamm Captivates in Tony Gilroy Spy Thriller by Brad Anderson
I admit, I wasn’t a Mad Men watcher. I gave Jon Hamm a try, I just wasn’t into the sexual politics of the show. Understand, my #MeToo-thinking started decades ago – the day my formerly-abused mom became the breadwinner – I was just a pup. When Mad Men dropped, I was out, Hamm be damned, within an episode or two.
The leading man’s support role in Baby Driver did nothing for me either, and unfortunately, other than his Shakespearean commercial work for H&R Block, that’s been my only taste of Hamm.
Thinking up Jon Hamm puns as I stepped into the theater, I didn’t know what to expect of Beirut, a film written by Bourne-Trilogy genius Tony Gilroy, and directed by Brad Anderson, whose impressively-long resume of television direction work includes The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire and countless other titles.
Just like Jason Bourne, Mason Skiles (Hamm) is a highly intelligent man with a specific skillset that he must rely upon to succeed. Instead of sniper-skills and wicked-awesome karate-chop moves, our lead turns out to be a bit of talker. A greasy-wheel. A “Seinfeld,” if you will – the straw that stirs the drink. Skiles has the gift of gab, the power of influence and he understands men – their desires, their limits and their response-tendencies. Naturally, in 1972, he is an American diplomat in Lebanon, and when we join him, he is working the room, the star of his own high-powered house party, where he has skillfully managed to place “Christians in one corner, Muslims in the other and Jack Daniels in between.”
It doesn’t take long for the inciting incident to pop off – about 10 minutes in, Skiles’ life is completely flipped upside down as gunmen raid the party, murder his wife and abscond with his adopted-and-reformed son, the brother of a prominent Palestinian terrorist wanted by governments and militias throughout the Middle East.
Titles push us 10 years forward to 1982 and the film begins in earnest with our American Cowboy back home and licking his wounds with alcoholism. Hamm is thinner, his cheekbones cresting under baggy, blown-out eyes, and his glowing visage has been severely tarnished – what once was confident and proud has turned dark and unforgiving under the weight of a decade of depression. Here’s when Hamm truly begins to shine, revealing a vulnerable side to our lead that is equal parts sympathetic and pathetic, as he wallows in self-destruction, blaming himself for losses he couldn’t have predicted, or stopped.
Throughout the film, Hamm wrestles with his depression through booze, and anyone who has experienced loss and the drink can relate – nothing masks reality like the bending of time and space inside a strong bottle of liquid misery. But it’s the picking-himself-up-and-dusting-himself-off that we’re interested in here, and Hamm manages to pull it off without forgetting the toll his alcoholism exacts along the way. He walks the razor-thin wire between recovery and relapse throughout, and we never forget just how wounded our warrior has become, giving the character a great deal of depth and relatability that we cling to as he returns to Beirut 10 years later.
The CIA calls upon Hamm in – where else – a bar, and hands him the key to the kingdom in the form of cash, passports, backstories, cover stories, you name it – the spy fodder comes in hot and heavy and we’re quickly whisked back to Lebanon to find out why exactly a former diplomat-turned-union-mediator is needed by America’s foremost covert spy operation. As it turns out, Skiles’ old diplomat buddy, Cal (Mark Pellegrino), now a high-ranking operative within the CIA, has been kidnapped by the same terrorists that took out Skiles’ wife a decade earlier. We’re introduced to a handful of government operatives, most notably Rosamund Pike (Sandy Crowder), a spy and Cal’s love-interest, Dean Norris (Donald Gaines) another spy, and Shea Whigham (Gary Ruzak) from the NSA, who plays the villain-among-friends role, the good-guy who manages to fuck up and blame it all on Hamm because he’s an easy target due to his addiction to the sauce.
But not even the nefarious NSA can stop Hamm from doing what he does best – talk his way out of trouble, negotiate deals, break every rule in the book, and somehow come out on top, but, hey, that’s what leading men do. And Hamm does it well, even when we get to our predictable first act break plot-point and it’s revealed that the new head of the terrorist group is none other than Skiles’ once-adopted son Karim (Idir Chender). In a particularly well-acted scene in which the reveal is made, Hamm begins immediately working on Karim emotionally, claiming that he has returned to Beirut out of love, but we sense that Hamm is working the room, as he always is, searching for the psychology he needs to manipulate all circumstances in his favor.
Indeed, Hamm’s mouth is the key to unlocking the plot of Beirut, while the normal requisite gunfire is exchanged, and the loud noises and bright shiny explosions go boom, satisfying the spectacle junkies in the theater – Skiles diligently goes about the task of negotiating the release of his friend, Cal, who he hasn’t seen since the night of the house party. In order to get Cal back, Hamm must locate Karim’s brother, who is wanted for multiple terrorist acts across the Middle East, and could be currently held by any number of warring factions. Dealing with Israel first and then eventually the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to find Karim’s brother and secure his release, Hamm moves from scene to scene, upping the stakes with each smarter-than-you comment he makes to world leaders who could easily pull out a pistol and blow his head off, no questions asked. But like all great negotiators, Hamm knows what his opponent wants, and is able to manipulate his way past their mental and physical barriers to find the truth, unravel the mystery, secure the terrorist and rescue his friend.
Along the way, we are given multiple twists and turns that keep us on our toes, and the theme of luck is introduced and reiterated throughout in the form of a no-limit-hold-em poker metaphor, with Hamm taking the metaphorical place of the Ace at the table who should never be underestimated. Bad luck, ultimately, is what does in Skiles’ wife – yes, she is murdered, but by a stray bullet that could just as easily have missed its mark – a bad hand Skiles is dealt early on and spends the rest of the film overcoming emotionally. In the end, Skiles succeeds through his skillful manipulation of the metaphorical poker table, but time-and-again, he is helped along the way by good luck, reinforcing a theme that hits home hard in the film’s final act, when the resolution concludes that despite their nefarious nature, even the bad-guys come away happy here.
Ultimately what Beirut tells us is that the world is a complicated place with no clear winners and losers, only hustlers and suckers, and most of the time, the hustlers are getting away – sometimes literally – with murder. In the world of high-stakes espionage, right and wrong both exist in a foggy shade of grey from which no one escapes with a clean conscious.
The film also speaks volumes about the destructive nature of civil war, best exemplified through Brad Anderson’s work with his cinematographer, Björn Charpentier, whose lens captures devastating city vistas depicting a ragged, war-torn Beirut that 10 years earlier resembled Eden. The film was shot in Tangier, Morocco, but some of the B-Roll exteriors undoubtedly feature footage from some modern-day hellscape, like Damascus, Syria. America, as always, has its role to play in the destruction of these far-off places filled with people we don’t know, and will never get the chance to, and Beirut does an outstanding job of removing the sugar from the coating we are usually force-fed with blindly patriotic films that are too timid or stupid to depict America’s role in the middle-east as it truly is: Divisive, destructive and life-taking at worst, and intrusive at best.