Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Beirut

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Directed by Brad Anderson

Covert operations can make for great films – the only problem is that they’re often classified. As a result, fictionalized stories based in some part on true events are often created. They may be subject to criticism for broadly painting a situation or the people involved, or for trying to boil down a years-long conflict into one personal dynamic representative of the whole thing. One way in which they do usually succeed is in being cinematic, and that’s the case in this large-scale fictional thriller from an unexpected director known for making small independent films.

Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is a gregarious and efficient U.S. diplomat stationed in Beirut in 1972. When his wife is killed following a terrorist attack designed to free a young Palestinian boy, Karim, that he has come to know and love, he returns to the United States and opens a legal practice. A decade later, he is summoned back to war-torn Beirut to help negotiate the release of a former colleague and top operative (Mark Pellegrino) whose captors have said they will speak only to him. Working with a few agency officials (Rosamund Pike, Shea Whigham, and Dean Norris) who have doubts about whether this man can accomplish what they need him to do, Skiles must use his knowledge of the area and his personal connections to ensure that everything plays out in a way that will both please the government and save his friend.

Anderson’s previous Sundance premieres have included “The Machinist” and “Transsiberian,” quieter thrillers in remote settings featuring isolated protagonists. This is a far more ambitious effort, utilizing a large cast to tell the story of one diplomat with the skills to talk his way out of situations and to understand how each piece of the puzzle fits. Bringing in Israel and using its role in this fictional plot as a catalyst for the outbreak of the 1982 Lebanon War politicizes this project in a big way, and at least one Israeli actor (Alon Aboutboul) is actually featured, though the filmmakers were questioned at Sundance about whether any of them had ever been to Beirut, which they had not. Just as this story is not true to life, this film does its best to recreate something that those behind it can’t fully comprehend since they weren’t there and haven’t gone.

Star Jon Hamm, director Brad Anderson, and screenwriter Tony Gilroy discuss the film

After working with actors like Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, Anderson knows just how to use a completely different personality – Hamm – to tremendous effect. The gregarious actor, who enthusiastically greeted the audience when he came out on stage for the Q and A following the film’s premiere at Sundance, is just the right actor to play the wounded Skiles, who still remains the best and only man for the job. An unrecognizable Norris stands out in the supporting cast for his committed role as a hard-line operative, and Whigham is dependable as usual. This film is fully engaging and enthralling, doing its best to showcase a greater conflict through this illustrative example. It doesn’t work fully, but it’s a solid film.


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