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Front Page - Friday, April 20, 2018

Critic's Corner: Hamm helps make ‘Beirut’ a worthy political thriller

Actor Jon Hamm is the best reason to see “Beirut,” an old school espionage thriller set in civil war-torn Lebanon. Not that the film as a whole isn’t worth seeing, but Hamm, who made a name for himself as Don Draper in TV’s “Mad Men,” does good work as a former diplomatic tasked with negotiating the release of a friend from Middle Eastern terrorists.

Hamm’s bleary, perpetually lubricated Mason Skiles is one of those rare comfy fits between an actor and a role that carry a movie. There’s none of Draper’s confident tempo or posturing here; Skiles excised those to give us a man slogging through the emotional wreckage left behind by a decade-old tragedy. But he remains sharp enough – and good-hearted enough – for the task at hand.

We first meet Skiles in Beirut in 1972 as he’s throwing a party in his home for a visiting congressman. He’s surrounded by a loving wife, his best friend, Cal, and a throng of adoring acquaintances and colleagues who soak up every fast-talking story he tells about life in Beirut. He seems to like where he is and what he’s doing.

Skiles’ utopian existence is reduced to rubble when Israeli intelligence (I had to look up who it was) shows up and demands Skiles turn over a 13-year-old orphan he and his wife have taken into their home: Karim. The agents tell Skiles that Karim is the brother of a notorious terrorist, Abu Rajal, who’s linked to several deadly attacks.

Rajal isn’t far behind and crashes the party with a group of gunmen, intent on retrieving his brother. In the ensuing melee, Skiles’ wife is shot and killed.

“Beirut” then cuts to 10 years later to find Skiles negotiating a labor dispute in Boston. He’s eking out an existence from the work, as his Ford Pinto and cheap hotel room suggest. Still, when a distant acquaintance finds him at a bar and tosses an envelope containing several thousand dollars and a ticket to Beirut in front of him, ostensibly so he can deliver a university lecture, Skiles isn’t tempted to bite.

He soon realizes the “invitation” is more of a demand and acquiesces. Upon arriving in Beirut, Skiles is met by a trio of dubious U.S. officials who tell him he’s actually there to secure the release of Cal, who’s been kidnapped by a violent Palestinian fringe group (I had to look that up, too) that specially asked for him to negotiate the exchange.

During his first meeting with the captors, Skiles learns that the terrorists are led by Karim, who hopes to use Mason as a bargaining chip to secure the release of his brother from the Israeli government.

If you think I’ve explained too much of the story, don’t worry; I’ve just touched the surface of this tightly-plotted intrigue. Written by Tony Gilroy, who scripted the first four “Bourne” films, “Beirut” portrays a political environment rife with duplicity and self-interest.

But even when the film threatens to become bewildering, Gilroy keeps it grounded by focusing on Skiles, one of the few characters in the film whose motivations are pure. Whenever I teetered on the edge of confusion, I concentrated on Skiles, and everything else would come into focus.

It helps that Gilroy’s dialogue is derisive and sharp and that Andrew Hafitz’s editing is urgent but not rushed. Unlike the “Bourne” films, the action is kept to a minimum, but the story maintains a brisk pace, giving “Beirut” a sense of unrelenting momentum.

Aside from Hamm’s performance, though, the most convincing part of the film is its environment. Set on top of a political powder keg, the threat of violence from the many competing political factions in Beirut is constant. Guns everywhere, complete with itchy fingers ready to pull the triggers and explosions and the pop of distant gunfire provide a constant aural background.

In the best shot of the film, director Brad Anderson pulls back from Skiles staring out of a window of a Beirut hotel to reveal a building pocked with bullet holes and giant cavities left behind by mortar fire. The Hilton it isn’t.

I liked “Beirut.” There’s a decent amount of political substance for a thriller, and it feels timely, even though it portrays fictional events that took place nearly 40 years ago. Gilroy could have trimmed his screenplay by a few pages, and the ending is a bit of a letdown, but even when the film stumbles, Hamm is there to pick it up.

Hamm might not have the magnetism of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne or the charisma of Daniel Craig as James Bond, but he has the focus of a skilled actor and he compels you to watch him as he tries to make sense of the chaos that surrounds him. Bigger things will follow for him in the wake of this film.