Beirut, a businesslike spy thriller set in the early 1980s, finally gives Jon Hamm a film role that makes something of the Mad Men star’s Humphrey Bogart qualities, playing Mason Skiles, an alcoholic, washed-up former diplomat with a perpetual hangover squint who has been enlisted by the CIA for a secret hostage negotiation in the Lebanese capital. This embodiment of ambiguous, all-American might-do and fallen angelhood is the stuff of classic Hollywood (nobody looks better than Hamm in a dumpy hotel bar), but it’s constrained by a Tony Gilroy script with more gamesmanship than game—a collection of analogies for escalating Middle Eastern conflict pasted on a formulaic, two-dimensional plot. Though entertaining in stretches, the central metaphor of back-channel dealmaking as a game of Texas Hold ’em—played by Skiles and different factions within the CIA, the PLO, and the Israeli government—comes up short in the end.
First seen as an embassy attaché schmoozing it up at a soon-to-be-violently-interrupted diplomatic cocktail party in the swanky, pre-Lebanese Civil War early ’70s, Hamm’s Mason Skiles is “a front-runner who stumbled,” in the words of one character. Now a small-time labor negotiator and barfly in New England, he is whisked back to Lebanon with a lecture at the American University Of Beirut as his cover story; it seems that his old buddy, the CIA station chief Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), has been kidnapped, and the terrorist group holding him hostage will only talk to Skiles. (The reasons are personal, but aren’t they always?) The local experts, Ruzak (Shea Whigham) and Gaines (Dean Norris, in a wonderful raccoon’s-ass hairpiece), have their own Machiavellian agendas, and would rather Skiles do as little talking as possible. So they assign the rumpled, frequently plastered ex-golden-boy a full-time babysitter in the form of the smartly dressed Crowder (Rosamund Pike, aptly cast in the Lauren Bacall role).
Of course, Skiles is a lot more capable and determined than he looks, and smart enough to tell the CIA point-blank that he’s the wrong man for the job. His wavering sobriety obviously parallels his conscience. He might be a lush and a personal mess, but he knows when the stakes are serious. But the character’s moral dimensions end up getting thrown in the back seat by the brisk, cynical machinations of the plot, which puts the pickled hero and his designated driver up against hypocrites and bluffers on every side of the conflict; in terms of the Gilroy oeuvre, it’s almost closer to the breezy conning of Duplicity than to the intrigues of something like Michael Clayton. Operating within the limits of anonymous competence, director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) displays none of the personality or psychological emphasis of his horror movies. In fact, for a thriller about international espionage, Beirut is conspicuously short on paranoia; its pessimism is reassured by the eternal constant of deception. But the screenwriterly ironies and jaundiced attitude toward international politics at least keep moving—enough to make this efficient, quality hackwork seem like a throwback to an earlier generation of Hollywood thrillers.