An American Tale | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

An American Tale 

Middle East conflict becomes just the backdrop for a Yank's redemption in Beirut.

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click to enlarge Rosamund Pike, Jon Hamm and - Dean Norris in Beirut - BLEECKER STREET FILMS
  • Bleecker Street Films
  • Rosamund Pike, Jon Hamm and Dean Norris in Beirut

It's not that there's no place for movies about the Middle East from an American perspective—but if that's the route you intend to take, you'd better think it through really carefully. As one character in Beirut notes, this is a place steeped in 20 centuries of religious, ethnic and tribal conflict, inflamed during the most recent two centuries by industrialized Western nations pursuing their own interests. We all understand that it's not easy to get an American movie financed without a white face front-and-center on the poster, but if you're telling what amounts to a Yank's loss-of-innocence or redemption story, maybe it's worth wondering if there's something off-putting about using oud music and orange-filtered shots of desert cities as an exotic backdrop.

Beirut opens such a story in 1972, as American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is informed that Karim, the 13-year-old Palestinian refugee taken in by him and his wife, Nadia (Leila Bekhti), has a brother connected to a terrorist group—a brother who takes back Karim in a raid at the Skiles' residence, during which Nadia is killed. Ten years later, Mason is an alcoholic working in Boston as a private consultant moderating labor disputes when he's summoned back to Beirut for a sensitive operation. A local CIA chief (Mark Pellegrino)—and old friend of Mason's—has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers have asked for Mason specifically to help facilitate the negotiations.

It's hardly a spoiler to reveal that the now-grown Karim (Idir Chender) is involved in the kidnapping, forcing Mason to confront the demons from his past. Hamm's performance is perfectly solid; he makes a convincing transition from the easy-going schmoozer we see in the prologue to the hardened soul of 1982. There's a familiar writerly quality to the character of Mason, though, as screenwriter Tony Gilroy turns him into one of those guys who's practically a superhero in his field as long as he's sober. His every hunch is perfect, every prediction followed in sequence by someone saying he's crazy, then immediately by the thing he predicted actually happening. Gilroy has written four Bourne series screenplays, so maybe it's grown tougher for him to write heroes who aren't hyper-competent while also being—to use an actual line from this screenplay—"damaged goods."

Ultimately, however, this is meant to be a story about an operation with complex geopolitical ramifications, emphasis on "complex." Gilroy doesn't ease back on details, laying out the precarious state of post-civil war Lebanon, reasons the P.L.O. might be willing to bargain, the objectives of Israeli intelligence, turf battles between the C.I.A. and N.S.C. over who's running things and a few other sub-plots shoehorned into the narrative just to make sure there's never a dull moment. And there isn't, to be fair, as director Brad Anderson (Transsiberian) builds enough tension into the back-and-forth negotiations that we're not simply getting a lesson about the political history of the region.

But providing backdrop feels like the justification for telling this story at all: "It's OK that the grief of a white American is front and center, because that's what's allowing us to explore the grief of an entire nation." There's simply never enough attempt to allow us inside the world of 1982 Lebanon, despite the ready-made set-up of the history between Mason and Karim. There's one terrifically surreal moment, as Mason wanders through bombed-out streets and spots a couple having their wedding portrait taken amidst the rubble; he's incredulous at the sight, not seeming to understand that for these people, there's no other choice but to live their lives where they are. That scene, however, is too rare an exception amidst all the spy games.

Beirut closes with a coda of archival news footage covering events subsequent to those portrayed in the film: Israel's invasion of Lebanon; the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks; etc. It feels like an attempt to add complexity to the ending of the primary narrative, which, despite a faint whiff of "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" moral ambiguity, allows Mason his moment to feel like maybe he's put his past behind him. The waving American flag at the end might be meant as somehow ironic, but it's also a reminder of the perspective this story is really all about.

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