We’re traveling back to the world of 1982 international politics in the new thriller Beirut, a world of cultivating sources and on-the-ground investigations into terrorist networks, before Twitter bots and state election board hacking. Jon Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a government diplomat who left the country a decade ago after the death of his wife and family.
Now he’s being called back in by a pair of the State Department because his former partner, someone Skiles left behind when he exited the country, has been taken hostage by a militant group. The Feds want Skiles to negotiate for his release before he breaks under what’s sure to be intense interrogation and torture. Helping Skiles in this is undercover CIA operative Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), though as usual her allegiances are fluid and subject to agendas not everyone knows about.
I’m not even sure what the poster is trying to sell. Hamm is in the forefront looking a bit bedraggled but still unfairly handsome as he looks off into the middle distance. Pike is in back, though it’s unclear what her role is, though it might be that she’s some sort of string-puller. Copy above the title offers a bit of the story, establishing that the setting is “Beirut, 1982. The Paris of the Middle East is burning.” That’s…vague and not all that promising. Then there’s a strange symbol with two guns pointing in opposite directions that makes no sense given this isn’t an action franchise that needs to be branded in such a way. The yellow-orange filter that’s applied to the photo helps reinforce that we’ll be traveling to the desert.
The first trailer opens as Mason is saying his goodbyes to colleagues at the location he’s leaving when his speech is interrupted by a massive bomb blast shattering the room’s windows. Skip forward 10 years and someone’s looking to bring him back into the game despite the fact he’s seen as a bit emotional for the job. He’s been recruited to once more negotiate in a Middle East location because, as he soon finds out, it’s his old partner Cal that’s been taken hostage. The powers want him back because he’s full of information but various other parties are unwilling to entertain any sort of deal that might be brokered.
It’s not bad but it’s also not that intriguing. We’ve seen these sorts of stories plenty of times before, where someone yells at someone else as the clock is ticking. Hamm sells his part as best he can, which he always does, but he’s not given much beyond stock dialogue and situations to deal with. This doesn’t appear to be a serious exploration of the complex politics in the region, just a chance for an American to exercise his moral certainty in a foreign land.
Online and Social
The official site from Bleecker Street isn’t bad considering it’s a single-page site. As you scroll down the page you see “Videos” has the trailer and a couple short featurettes. The very brief “Story” synopsis is followed by some featured content that not only talks about the film but also helps set the stage by providing some historical information on the city of Beirut at the time the story takes place. A carousel of positive quotes from early screenings is followed by a “Cast” section that just has headshots of the leads, not any information on their characters or anything else. The top of the site also has links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots like this positioned the movie as a tense, edge-of-your-seat action spy thriller about not just a rescue mission but a quest into Mason’s own past. That’s a nice tie-in to the name-dropping of The Bourne Trilogy. The narration is a bit heavy-handed and sometimes overwhelms the action being shown, but it’s not bad overall.
Media and Publicity
Powered at least in part by the release of a trailer and poster in advance, it was a common element of critics’ lists of films they were anticipating seeing at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was scheduled for a debut screening.
Unfortunately the reaction outside of that wasn’t great, particularly from groups who felt (with good reason) that the trailer promised the film would be filled with the usual sort of stereotypes and offensive portrayals that are all too common in Hollywood.
A profile of Hamm touched on all the expected themes that have dogged him in the last few years, namely how his breakout “Mad Men” role is something he’s working to move past, as if a handsome guy who can bounce effortlessly between comedy and drama is hampered by anything but other people’s perceptions of him.
As someone who’s generally a fan of the spy movie genre there’s some good stuff here to get my attention. The campaign certainly wants to sell a movie that’s more action than spycraft, with lots of pulse-pounding moments and heated exchanges of dialogue. Whether or not that’s representative of the movie as a whole remains to be seen, but it’s got some decent buzz (in addition to the negative reactions to ethnic stereotypes) and might be a good example of the kind of mid-grade thrillers studios are slowly but sure moving away from.
That may not be enough to make much of a dent in the box-office this weekend, but it might do to create enough of an impression that the audience will check this out when it comes to a streaming service in five months. I wish we could move past the “Hamm needs to break free of Don Draper” narrative every time he has a new movie coming out, but it seems that’s not going to happen for a little while longer.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.