I missed out on the whole Mad Men thing (Yes, I know, shame on me; its on the massive list of things I should watch), so I was unprepared for everything that is Jon Hamm. While I have seen him do a few comedic cameos and enjoyed his H & R Block commercials, I didn’t realize he had the dramatic chops that he has on display in Brad Anderson’s Beirut, a taut, smart thriller that gives the actor a plum role, which he runs with. Ably supported by Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris and Shea Whigham, the movie sports a well-written script by Tony Gilroy, similar in tone to his “Michael Gilroy,” and is equally smart and entertaining.
In 1972, Mason Skiles (Hamm) has been assigned as a U.S. diplomat in the titular city and it becomes evident why. Charming, smart and a natural glad-hander, it’s obvious he’s the sort of man the country needs to build strong relations with our Middle East allies. However, a terrorist attack on a party he and his wife are hosting leaves him reeling, as his spouse is killed and his reputation left in ruins.
Jump ahead ten years and we see Skiles has set up a small mediation company, the money he earns from it being just enough to keep a roof over his head and support his ample drinking habit. Out of the blue, he’s contacted by a CIA agent and reluctantly returns to Beirut; seems a former colleague of his has been kidnapped and the abductors have requested Skiles broker the deal. His first instinct is to turn tail and run, and operatives Crowder, Gaines and Ruzak (Pike, Norris and Whigham) would probably welcome it as they see him as a burnt-out drunk who is of no use to them.
While the international intrigue drives the plot of the film, at its core this is a tale of redemption, as Skiles realizes very quickly that participating in high-stakes negotiations like this is what he’s been missing. His old instincts kick in as behind that five o-clock shadow and hang dog look lies a fierce dealmaker. Hamm pulls this off, seemingly with ease, as we see Skiles slowly and then eagerly, come out of his drunken haze now that he has a purpose. While all those around him doubt and disparage him, he uses that as motivation to prove them wrong. The actor is convincing every step of the way, portraying each facet of this damaged man with realism and sincerity.
Gilroy’s script is filled with subtle pieces of misdirection but he manages to play fair throughout, the various betrayals, double crosses and switchbacks being rendered in a feasible, smart manner. There are no convenient, out-of-left-field plot reversals that are startling and nonsensical; Gilroy’s plot requires no undue manipulation or sleight of hand, as all of his ducks are in a row, all the pieces of the plot’s puzzle fitting tightly together once they’re exposed.
One of the things that makes Beirut so enjoyable is that it has become a rare animal in Hollywood – an intelligent, timely, tense entertainment, well-executed. That Hamm shines so brightly at its center is a credit to the actor’s skills, his efforts here hopefully leading to similarly meaty roles in the future.