Espionage movies are pretty scarce these days. Villains are thin on the ground. Call out North Korea and they implode your software; criticise Middle Eastern regimes and you look over your shoulder for the rest of your life. Who is it safe to call the villain?
Gone it seems are the Cold War days of Russians causing problems for people like George Smiley and the Nazis had their movie use-by date more than 50 years ago.
The problems in the Middle East seem to offer up all kinds of bad guys and the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States is full of plenty of rotten apples if movie scripts are to be believed.
As a self-confessed lover of the USA until my thirties, I found it hard to watch as this great country seemed to keep making errors. Is it too strong to say that without exception their foreign policy has been askew since World War II? If you believe Gore Vidal, it was off well before then.
So film makers are often prepared to use the CIA as the bad guy. Not all the agency, just the ones who plot against the lead characters in these fictions. The West can be a little self-critical while our opponents zealously see nothing wrong with the way they go about things.
In Beirut (2018) I wasn’t sure which group was bad: the CIA, Mossad, the PLO, the splinter group seeking to get one of its leaders back by kidnapping an American spy, Cal (Mark Pellegrino). The movie played a pretty even hand as to everyone being zealous and wanting their outcome and not that of others.
Before all this we meet Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a negotiator with a balanced view. Loyal to the USA, he is stationed in Beirut in the early 1970s and has a good handle on the way the city works. Cal is his closest friend; Skiles’s wife is Lebanese; they have a 13-year-old refugee living with them who they are willing to sponsor.
Sad part is the refugee, Karim, is the brother of Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa), a notorious Palestinian terrorist linked to the recent Summer Olympics massacre of Jewish athletes in Munich.
The night this is exposed to Skiles, he is hosting a party and argues Karim’s innocence with determined US authorities trying to take the boy into custody. As this happens, gunfire breaks out and Abu’s men abduct Karim with Skiles’s wife killed in the ensuing gunfire.
In the ensuing 10 years, Skiles has retreated into alcoholism and his job back home appears to be go-nowhere negotiator between unions and employers. He is drawn back into espionage at the request of a group wanting to exchange the since-kidnapped Cal for Abu Rajal, who they believe is being held by the US. Skiles gets his call up because Karim (Idir Chender) is a major player in the group and wants his brother back. Cleverly, he reasons that Skiles is the only American he can trust.
This proves well founded as the guys at the US embassy in Beirut – Don Gaines (Dean Norris) and the man sent from Washington, Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) – aren’t to be trusted. There is also Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) who may just be a good guy.
Enter the Israelis and the PLO with guest appearances by every other group that has been fighting a civil war in Lebanon for the past decade. They all have their reasons for being involved in such a transaction and thus unfolds a mystery/thriller that keeps going at good pace.
Surprises bob up and there are probably inconsistencies in there but it is a good ride and well handled.
Some club members raised some good points which I shall cover without attribution.
- How did Rosamund Pike’s hair always look so good and why was she in the movie in the first place? Don’t know times two.
- The final scene at the US base where all loose ends are tied up had the obligatory fluttering stars and stripes banner flowing in the breeze as our heroes drove away. I thought later that this may have been meant to be ironic rather than patriotic?
- Why did Dean Norris (so wonderfully bald as Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad) wear a squirrel on his head?
- SPOILER ALERT: How did the Israelis find out where the rendezvous would be? I thought this easily explained: Because they’re a lot smarter than all the other players in the game.
- Why did Skiles go from being unwilling to go to Beirut when asked to being on the plane soon after? Boredom, unfinished business, my life is going nowhere here, dramatic licence?
- How important is family? Despite the life that probably awaited him with the Skiles, Karim chose his brother and the terrorist life. He tells Skiles he was not a terrorist the night the men came for him but was the next morning. Epiphany? Brainwashing? Realisation that the US life would never be safe as the brother of a terrorist? Sliding doors moment?