We knew Jon Hamm could carry a television series and now, as his captivating turn in Beirut makes clear, we know he can carry a movie as well. Hamm is the kind of actor who makes it feel as though everyone else in a given film is playing only a bit part, no matter how much time they might spend on screen. Call it charisma, call it star power, maybe just call it “chops” - whatever it is, Jon Hamm has enough of it that he glides through the 109-minute runtime of Beirut as if he possesses an inexhaustible supply of this “je ne sai quoi.” That Hamm shares the bill of this movie with Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher) only enhances his aura of talent, especially since Norris inhabits his role so thoroughly he’s almost unrecognizable and Pike continues her effort to prove something about how versatile she is following her superb performance in 7 Days in Entebbe.
The story this outstanding cast is bringing to life is that of fallen-star CIA operative Mason Skiles (Hamm) and his erstwhile return to action to help rescue his kidnapped colleague Cal played by Scott Pellegrino (Supernatural). Skiles has been out of the business for a decade but when Cal is kidnapped by terrorists the Agency drafts him to negotiate Cal’s release because, unbeknownst to Skiles, the terrorists have requested him by name. Since this is the Middle East and the CIA, there’s lots of cat-and-mouse antics and a number of “who can you really trust?” moments, but the plot is more or less a known quantity. It’s a testament to the skill of Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) that what would be rote in the hands of a lesser practitioner, though, builds tension at a consistent pace until reaching a perfectly-timed crescendo, proving that no matter how many times a thing is done, it can still be satisfying when it’s done well.
There are movies, like Syriana or Body of Lies, that use a personal story to make broader assertions about the nature of the region, the players at hand, or the inherent corruption of relevant institutions, but sometimes a movie set in the Middle East is just a movie set in the Middle East. Although Beirut certainly portrays events and dynamics that could be used as avenues into a broader sociocultural analysis, it’s primarily just a thriller that uses the city and its inhabitants for backdrop.
There is no one in the business who plays incredulous better than Jon Hamm and as a washed up drunk who suddenly finds himself back in the big leagues of international espionage in the person of Mason Skiles, Hamm has plenty of opportunity to play incredulous in Beirut. He and Pike and Norris make for an ensemble that wrings every drop of gratification out of some well-worn spy movie devices. Audiences who can abandon their pretensions to higher purpose and enjoy Beirut for the expertly-acted thriller it is will be well rewarded.