I’ve missed Brad Anderson. There was a time when he was on my short list of directors (along with Mark Pellington and E. Elias Merhige) who I was sure were about to break into the big leagues. Then Wes Anderson and Rian Johnson came along, and I guess took all the “cool movie” money. So it goes, huh?
Having worked steadily in television for the better part of his career, Anderson here has assembled a cast of small-screen veterans for Beirut. While no great masterpiece — or even the best Brad Anderson film — it’s worth seeing if only to be reminded of what a truly talented director can do with some pretty standard spy thriller material. Anderson has clearly studied his Pakula and Pollack, employing the breathless, sweaty stylistic tricks of old-school paranoid New Hollywood to create a tone of controlled confusion that, while somewhat predictable, maintains its pace and is the rare film that justifies its “throwback” aesthetic.
Jon Hamm plays the alcoholic former diplomat Mason Skiles with the twitchy, lonely-hearted brutishness he brought to Don Draper in Mad Men’s later seasons. Having sat out the country’s civil war during his semiretirement back to the U.S., Skiles is recruited back to Beirut in 1982 to help the CIA trade a captured operative for a missing terrorist who just so happens to be Israel’s public enemy No. 1 (“He’s ‘Munich’,” as they say). And while the script isn’t the best thing Tony Gilroy’s ever worked on, it’s certainly an improvement on 2016’s bizarre and obnoxious Rogue One. Gilroy often fares better with more human elements to ground his often too-complex-by-half plotting, and here the solid cast makes the most of it.
Still, there’s a very strange thing going on here where the production is concerned. For lack of a better word, the film often looks cheap. Dialogue sounds as if it’s being mic’d from across the room, filling the soundtrack with a strange echo effect. Even more distracting is the presence of yellow flashes constantly bouncing across the actors’ eyes, as if their faces aren’t being lit correctly. It’s all actually pretty confusing, because for all of those issues — not to mention the frequent use of bad aerial stock footage — it seemed at the same time to have been a lavish enough setup, with Anderson and his team taking full advantage of their location shooting in Morocco. But the film’s flaws in those regards are easy enough to ignore as the story has a genuine pull to it, which I’d again credit to Anderson and his cast, and the faults becoming texture.
Even if Beirut is nothing more than an expensive demo reel for Anderson’s comeback starring a bunch of his old TV buddies, it’s still worth it. While too many of his generation have been stuck inside their own heads, he’s been putting in his time in the trenches. And if all he wants to do is keep making gritty little Bleecker Street movies, I’ll take what I can get.