” – 2000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder… -Welcome to Beirut”
A dialog in the movie Beirut
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By Nina Heyn, Your Culture Scout
In the olden days of cinema, circa last century, there have been plenty of political dramas to choose from. You could watch The Deer Hunter about Vietnam War or The Conversation about CIA invigilation or All President’s Men about Watergate or The Killing Fields about Khmer Rouge. These days, serious political dramas on film are few and far between. There hasn’t really been a good one since Argo which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2012. There is one now, called Beirut.
The screenplay was written by Tony Gilroy who often writes (and sometimes directs) movies in a genre that could call “thinking man’s political dramas” such as Michael Clayton and the Bourne trilogy. Beirut is a very satisfying movie in this genre. It stars very versatile and charismatic actor Jon Hamm who burst into fame with his role in the TV show Mad Men but who has not been enough on the big screen to be really appreciated as a true film star that he is. He is riveting in this role as Mason Skiles, an-ex diplomat, a washed-out union negotiator and the only man who can bring about a release of a kidnapped US embassy staffer in Beirut.
We first see him in 1972 when Beirut was called “Paris of the Middle East” and Lebanon was the land of cedars, wine, culture and refinement, the best deal-making in the region and a peaceful coexistence of all faiths. Mason is in the thick of it, married to a Lebanese woman, in the process of adoption of a Palestinian boy, an expert on Arabic culture and politics, having the time of his life in a beautiful house in the hills. Then one night all this collapses in betrayal, kidnapping, murder and loss. We see him ten years later, struggling in a dead-end job of a union negotiator in rainy Boston, a man who is trying to drown his tragic memories in yet another glass of whisky. Until one day the government comes calling and within 24 hours he is shipped back to Beirut. He is tasked to negotiate a release of his old colleague and a CIA region chief from Palestinian kidnappers who demand a release of their fighter, a man pursued by both Mossad and CIA for his role in several major attacks, including the one at the Munich Olympics. Mason is supposed to bring about this impossible deal where every interested party is negotiating at gunpoint and everyone lies about their motifs and allegiances.
There aren’t many movies about intricacies of contemporary politics that try to be both realistic (which really excludes a lot of current “our boys in the Middle East” tales that are as earnest as simplistic) and intellectually entertaining (which excludes most of the same current American war and politics movies, unfortunately). Beirut delivers on both counts. The Lebanese refugees wandering around 1980’s Paris had the same haunted look we see in the eyes of the movie’s characters. The negotiation scenes between Mason and either Mossad, PLO or CIA are all priceless – everyone here is holding some cards back, keeping a poker face and bluffing their way through a game rigged from the start. You find a similar cat and mouse game in the famous adaptation of John Le Carré novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but that one was a book and a movie from the Brits – masters of the intelligent political story genre. US movies these days are rarely so quick-witted; good writing has mostly moved to television.
In Beirut, the most heartbreaking and the most universal is this sense of a loss and waste when you look at a drone shot of an erased city. Those tree-lined boulevards, smiling people of all colors at outdoor cafes and stores brimming with food that are shown in a documentary footage at the beginning of the film have now been replaced with gaping ruins of concrete walls. Hamm has this look of horror, distaste and shock when he comes out of the airport arrival hall onto a post-war Beirut. Street violence at any corner, completely destroyed buildings, chaos, noise and dust of anguish of a city torn into pieces together with its inhabitants. This movie image of Beirut is a pars pro toto – it stands for every destroyed lifestyle and every location- from antiquity when Alexandria burned in 48 BC and to Song dynasty towns that were pillaged in 1127, through centuries of European wars, all the way to Warsaw razed to the ground in 1944 and any Middle Eastern country this century, from Iraq, through Afghanistan and all the way to Syria yesterday or next week.
The destruction of the city is mirrored by destruction of people’s lives. The fictional story of Beirut’s characters is a perfect illustration of what happened over centuries to millions of people once the clash of invaders touched upon their lives. In the movie, Mason’s life gets irreparably destroyed once his peaceful afternoon party ends up in kidnapping and death. Ten years later, his effort to prevent another politically motivated kidnapping ends up in more anguish and this is just before another war starts in Lebanon soon after.
This is not a moralistic tale, there are no messages to take home because wars will not stop and as long as there is any displacement of any people, there will always be clashes between locals and incomers. There are no empty spaces on Earth left. What Beirut shows so well is what happens when a particular place happens to be at crossroads of constant human movement and how people have been failing to build life at such crossroads… for centuries.
Above all, this movie is an “intelligent person’s entertainment,” something that is usually lacking at local multiplexes. The plot is complex and interesting, Hamm’s portrayal will earn him this year’s awards nominations and the story is so relevant to current affairs and the Middle East conflicts.
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