Beirut opens with a virtuoso display of privileged mansplaining — a glib U.S. diplomat in Lebanon hosting a party in the 1970s offers a smug assessment of the country and the volatile region.
Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is full of himself (and Jack Daniel's and hubris), and to make sure we get the point, director Brad Anderson lingers just a bit on a shot of Skiles in a framed photo standing next to Henry Kissinger.
We wait for events to knock this cocky Yank down a few pegs, and we don't wait long — the violence he jokes about shows up at his doorstep in the form of a bloody incident that changes his life. Skiles loses his career and most of his friends.
Next time we see him, several years have elapsed, and he's now a labor negotiator in Boston. Hard-nosed union guys spit insults at contemptuous company managers, and Skiles sits helplessly between them, remembering the good old days when all he had to do was negotiate peace in the Middle East.
It's the kind of joke we might expect from writer Tony Gilroy, who wrote the better Bourne movies and the script for Michael Clayton, a definitive modern text for burned-out, disillusioned professionals.
Here, he's paying homage to Graham Greene, with a story of cynical Western operatives trying to game a geopolitical nightmare partly of their own making, centered on Skiles, who is forced back to Beirut some years later during Lebanon's civil war. Pro-Palestine Liberation Organization militias (one led by Idir Chender) have kidnapped an agent, and Skiles has been recalled to mediate a prisoner exchange — a complicated affair involving rival Lebanese factions, splintered U.S. interests, and the Israelis.
The flourishing city Skiles left is now a ruin, and there are scars on psyches of former friends and colleagues he left behind. What's more, he's been asked to lead a negotiation based on rapidly evolving information almost certainly falsified by all parties involved.
Skiles is sure of only one thing — everyone is lying, including the CIA operative (Rosamund Pike) assigned to hold his hand, her self-interested boss (Dean Norris), and the White House liaison (Shea Whigham), each with a different agenda.
Gilroy's metaphor for this is poker — Skiles is a legendary player, and his ability to manage international brinkmanship as though it were a hand of Texas hold'em keeps him (and others) alive.
Of course, poker isn't geopolitics, and the stakes are human lives. The movie is sometimes slick (the musical cues are pretty lame) to a fault — just like Skiles. It's also mostly interested in its Western characters, leading to charges that it's culturally myopic.
On the other hand, none of these Western characters is very admirable by design, and the movie warns against intelligence-community overconfidence and the meddling that arises from it.
It's also well-acted. Hamm is in his sweet spot here as a former hotshot now emptied of ideals and passion. Pike plays a woman who trades on being underestimated by men, and supporting pros like Whigham and Norris obviously enjoy working with better-than-average dialogue.