In 2007, writer-director Tony Gilroy dispatched the protagonist of Michael Clayton, a cynical and corrupt law-firm fixer, to unravel a plot so grubby it made him look clean by comparison. Gilroy pursues the same strategy in the involving if somewhat predictable Beirut, which was directed by Brad Anderson.
While the movie sounds like a something of a sequel, it's actually a prequel. Gilroy first wrote the screenplay in 1991, but found no market for it then, less than a decade after bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut killed more than 250 Americans.
The bulk of the story transpires in 1982, when things are bad in Lebanon, and about to get much worse. A prologue, set a decade earlier, shows the event that sent U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) recoiling from both Beirut and the foreign service. An attack on a party at Mason's home separates him from his wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti) and their almost-adopted son Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg).
Mason retreats to Boston, turns to drink, and wastes his big-league negotiating skills on small-time union-management disputes. He's called back to Beirut when a buddy from the old days, Cal (Mark Pellegrino), is kidnapped. The two are no longer friends, but Mason feels an obligation to help. Maybe he even nurses a small hope that the mission will redeem him, if not Lebanon.
Also, the kidnappers have specifically requested Mason as the go-between. That likely means someone else from the opening sequence will eventually reenter the picture.
Mason soon realizes that most of the Beirut-based U.S. officials and operatives are more concerned about safeguarding the secrets Cal knows than with saving the man himself. Only Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) seems as committed to rescuing Cal as Mason is. The two clash at first, but then became allies.
The negotiations are fraught and often disrupted. This gives Mason time to forsake drinking, as well as relapse. It also offers him (and the viewer) the opportunity to savor fully the duplicity and self-interest of the PLO, the Israelis, and his own colleagues. If the movie's outcome is glib, much of the story is sufficiently bleak and ambiguous to evoke John Le Carre.
It's hardly a stretch for Hamm to play a man who's clever, disenchanted, and charismatically dissolute. But he does it as surely as he ever has, and Pike is more convincing as a Yank than she was a German in 7 Days in Entebbe. Anderson's direction is poised, even if he can't conjure wartime Lebanon as harrowingly as Volker Schlondorff in Circle of Deceit (1981), which had the advantage of actually having been filmed in the country, or Denis Villeneuve in 2010's Incendies.
Beirut does present the usual quandaries of films in which foreign conflicts serve primarily to help Westerners resolve their personal problems. Even with Cal's life in peril, the travails of Mason and Sandy appear trivial next to the bloody tumult of 1980s Lebanon. Detractors, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, have slammed the film's "racist and simplistic" portrayal of Arabs and regional politics, and dubbed Mason's character a stereotypical white savior.
Still, the Arabs in Beirut are more complicated than the ones in basic Hollywood shoot-'em-ups (and include the Arabic-speaking Mason's wife). While Gilroy doesn't give equal time to all the factions in the Lebanese Civil War, he does script a taxi driver's quick summary of the tangled hostilities. As for Mason, he's about as much of a saint than Michael Clayton. And, as Beirut's potent news-footage epilogue reminds us, there were no major roles for saviors in Lebanon in 1982.