The opening scenes of Beirut, a Mideast hostage thriller opening Friday, follows a decadently mutton-chopped U.S. diplomat named Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) as he works the room at a house party in the Lebanese capitol in 1972. Skiles manages to convey the social and political climate in scraps of conversations with U.S. officials, foreign dignitaries and businessmen in the deftly scripted and edited credit sequence.
But the party, we sense right away, is tense. Skiles' colleague, Cal (Mark Pellegrino), arrives late and uneasy. He tells Skiles that the boy he and his wife had been planning to adopt, a Palestinian named Karim, must be taken immediately for interrogation by U.S. military personnel. Karim's brother is a known terrorist, thought to be connected to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Skiles, incensed, goes outside to reason with the men who want to take Karim. It's the first time we see Skiles operate, and we intuit immediately his skill as a negotiator. But soon, gunshots ring out. The house is under attack. People die. Karim is taken.
It's a breathtaking, edge-of-your-seat opening that sets the stage for the film's central plot, which takes place 10 years later.
Skiles is now an alcoholic lawyer, living alone and negotiating union settlements in dingy hotel conference rooms. It's 1982, so much of his hair has been shorn. He gets a mysterious invitation one afternoon — an invitation that he understands is gravely important — to give a talk at the American University in Lebanon. He is told to board a plane that very night. He arrives to a dangerous hostage situation. A CIA operative (Breaking Bad's Dean Norris), a White House emissary (Kong: Skull Island's Shea Wigham) and a regional expert at the embassy (Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike) tell Skiles that the terrorists who have captured a U.S. diplomat will only negotiate with him.
A frenzied 48 hours follows. Skiles must negotiate for the release of an old friend while also navigating a web of U.S. officials, few of whom he suspects he can trust. Hamm, as the maverick negotiator, is a force onscreen, repeatedly cutting through the B.S. of both the kidnappers and the U.S. team.
"This comes directly from the President," Wigham's Gary Ruzak tells Skiles in an early briefing.
"Unless he's the next person to walk through that door, I suggest you tell me what the fuck is going on," Skiles retorts.
While a few of the major story developments are unsurprising — can you guess who might be among the kidnappers? (Cough: Karim) — the script nevertheless gives Hamm a rich trove of material to work with. The character is sharply written and perfectly cast. Given the built-in ticking clock of the negotiations, Beirut's pace is brisk, with tension ratcheted up for much of the film's second half.
Beirut also illustrates the utter devastation of Lebanon in the midst of that country's civil war, which began in 1975. In one of the film's more striking images, Skiles arrives at his hotel in Beirut and looks out over the rubble that the city has become.
Beirut is directed by Brad Anderson, who helmed the 2008 Woody Harrelson thriller Transsiberian, and also directed perhaps the single best episode of the AMC drama The Killing, the season one finale "Orpheus Descending." The script was penned by Bourne franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who most recently concocted the (bumpy) script for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.