‘Beirut’ is an audacious thriller with a star-making performance from Jon Hamm

Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) embraces the gutter. A former United States diplomat who suffered tragedy in the Middle East many years ago and abandoned everything that made him whole, Skiles spends the better part of his days drinking himself into a stupor with no care in the world for whether the night is old or young. When a former colleague and friend, Cal (Mark Pellegrino) is kidnapped, Skiles is requested to broker the exchange, thus bringing back all the trauma and bad blood of his past to the forefront.

As Mason would say, welcome to Beirut, an audacious and insightful thriller that holds your attention due to the star-making performance from Hamm.

Brad Anderson made a wise choice in casting the Mad Men legend, because few actors can play damaged heroes better these days. You don’t need to slap extra pounds, makeup, or a phony accent on the actor; Hamm simply shows up, climbs into the skin of the flawed, and lives there quite seamlessly. You may see a hint of Don Draper and even Hamm’s J.B. from Million Dollar Arm in Mason, but it’s clearly a different animal.

Dropped into a war zone where even your friends are your enemies and everyone else is toeing a line between bad and worse, Skiles has to figure out how to handle a bevy of United States politicians and spies (Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Larry Pine, and Shea Whigham) as well as the terrorists (Idri Chendler among others) who are holding onto his friend. The demands for Ca;’s safe return are high and it’s up to Mason to get the job done without getting blown up, taken by the wrong people, shot and killed, or worse in the process. In Lebanon back in the 1970’s and 80’s, you didn’t need actual landmines; just a person with a gun and vendetta.

A pillar of versatility, Hamm fully comes into his own on the big screen. He’s never been better or more perfectly utilized than he is here playing the reluctant hero who must confront his past in order to find safe passage for his future. He reminds me of a young Robert Redford if he had a chance encounter with a modern day George Clooney-and I’m talking about the Clooney from Tony Gilroy’s brilliant lawyer drama, Michael Clayton. Mason shares a few things with that morally-twisted suit, and it makes sense because Gilroy wrote both characters.

When I walk into a Gilroy constructed world, there’s an inner calm that accompanies my mood, because I know there’s going to be a juicy plot layered with twists and turns that carry zero need for manipulation. You’re talking about the guy who wrote the Bourne Trilogy, Clayton, Nightcrawler, the underrated State of Play, and rescued the doomed Rogue One script from extinction (one can hope Gareth Edwards is sending him continuous bottles of single barrel bourbon).

Beirut is a tightly wound 109 minutes, so a hat tip to Andrew Hafitz, who edited the film. Bjorn Chapentier’s cinematography paints the war-torn city in grainy colors that hardly move away from black and gray, while John Debney’s score doesn’t veer far from tense and involved. The movie may seem like it’s slowing down, but Anderson and Gilroy keep the plot’s legs moving the entire time. I loved the way an early part of the film is woven into the finale.

If you aren’t paying attention, a vital piece of information may skip past you. This is 2,000 years of murder and retribution mixed with espionage and government diplomacy, so make sure your brain is wearing a tie.

During those times, the United States wanted to stay out of Israel and Lebanon’s way when they treated Beirut like a Roman coliseum, but there were times when they had to dip into the dangerous waters for one of their own. This movie covers one of those alleged occurrences.

Hamm will keep you invested no matter what. He’s that good here. The man dabbles in comedy and ensembles to good effect, but I hope he finds more roles like Mason Skiles where he can sink a tooth into the role and stay awhile.

Neither 100% noble or borderline trustworthy, he’s a guy living comfortably on the edge of mortality when he is pulled back into the fray one last time, and Hamm doesn’t demand your sympathy. Mason may never find what he’s looking for, but he’s content in continuing the search. There’s something about an anti-hero who can’t drink enough bourbon that always gets my attention.

Pike offers her usual quota of fitting in nicely without standing out much. Outside of Gone Girl, I find her very replaceable. Norris and Whigham each get their moments to shine in smaller roles, but the boat is clearly being driven by one guy, and he likes toasted ravioli and Blues hockey.

If you like old-fashioned political thrillers with a few good thrills, great writing, and stellar acting that flies under the radar, check out Beirut. Warning: you may sweat a little.

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