Screen Savor: The Beirut of the problem

By Gregg Shapiro

Ongoing and recent events in Syria are a daily reminder of the fact that the Middle East has been in turmoil for generations. Hopes for peace in the region remain in doubt.

The thriller “Beirut” begins in 1972, at a time when Lebanon was relatively untouched by what was taking place around it. Diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) and his wife Nadia (Leïla Bekhti) are hosting a cocktail party full of assorted politicians and high-ranking officials. As Mason puts it, Palestinians want nothing more than to “burn down the Israeli house next door.”

Among the locals that Mason and Nadia employ in their household is a young Palestinian boy named Karim. Unbeknownst to them, Karim is the younger brother of one of the terrorists responsible for orchestrating the massacre at the Munich Olympics. When fellow diplomat Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives late to the party, with the news about Karim, he’s not alone. There are Mossad agents waiting outside to take the boy away.

Mason is shocked and tries to find a means of working out the situation. However, the arrival of Karim’s brother (who has escaped from prison) and several masked gunmen turn the situation chaotic. Unfortunately, Nadia is killed during the assault.

Ten years later, Mason is a shell of a man. A “front-runner who stumbled,” he’s working as an arbitrator in Boston, and he’s an alcoholic. One evening, in a bar, a man walks in and attempts to recruit him for a gig in Beirut. He tells Mason that “time is tight” and that the “agency would be grateful for his cooperation,” and leaves behind an envelope with a passport and airline ticket.

With nothing left to lose, Mason heads to Beirut. It’s 1982 and Beirut, in the midst of a civil war, is in worse shape than when he left, following the Palestinian siege of the city. He is visibly shaken when he takes in the bombed-out city view from his hotel window.

Deputy CIA attaché Sandy (Rosamund Pike) meets with Mason. She brings him to an event being hosted by the ambassador (Larry Pine). There he meets others on Sandy’s team and is told that “an American was pulled off the street in Beirut.” They want experienced negotiator Mason to broker the hostage situation deal with the kidnappers. Oh, and by the way, his old friend Cal is the hostage, and the lead kidnapper is a grown-up Karim (Idir Chender).

From this point on, “Beirut” becomes a tangled web spy thriller, full of double-crosses, tense and terrifying situations, and more than a few surprises to keep the action moving and the audience engaged.

Director Brad Anderson is a long way from his Boston rom-com “Next Stop Wonderland” of 20 years ago, but he handles the material with agility. It probably helps that he’s working from a screenplay by Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” series and “Michael Clayton”), a screenwriter (and director) who is at his best with this type of material.

Brutal and bloody, “Beirut” is a timely tale of intrigue. Rating: 3 ½ peaches

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