The more things change, the more they stay the same.
You’ve been granted top-secret access in review #9: Beirut
Hi everyone! Up for hypercritical inspection today is a film that takes place against the backdrop of the chaotic middle east in 1982. Beirut is an espionage thriller centered around the Lebanese Civil War, but it was actually filmed in Morocco. This movie is the creation of director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) and writer Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Trilogy, Nightcrawler). It features an outstanding cast and tells a complex story, engaging the audience by implementing impeccable pacing and deliberate plot twists. The film is well-rounded and very entertaining, but suffers from key issues in a few categories. The final verdict according to my grading system is four stars (recommended), and fans of Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike will definitely want to check it out. So why four stars? I’m so glad you asked! Let’s get to it:
There’s something magical that happens when a film’s lighting consistently matches the mood and movement of the story and action. Cinematographer Björn Charpentier (Mixed Kebab) successfully achieves this effect in Beirut by utilizing naturalistic lighting techniques and layered silhouettes. The result is astounding and intentional. I found myself drawn straight into the narrative, often forgetting I was even watching a film. The subtle use of backlighting throughout the movie produces silhouetted edges that reveal less, and ask the viewer’s mind to fill in the gaps. The clever opposite of this approach is the use of hard lights and blown-out (overexposed) landscapes. The combination of these devices makes locations and characters feel very real, and accurately depicts how the human eye typically perceives reality – as an amalgamation of several uniquely redundant reflective sources. Detracting factors in this category include the choice to capture specific sequences with intentionally shaky hand-held camera shots, and the clear use of stock aerial footage to portray the cityscape of Beirut. The hand-held shots are most likely intended to create a feeling of action and intensity, but because the film alternates between shaky moments and stable ones, I found the effect more jarring than anything. Perhaps that was the desired visceral result. The stock aerial footage used in Beirut is another negative attribute, and it’s easily identifiable due to its low resolution when compared to the rest of the footage. For a film so carefully prepared, use of this stock footage was a poor creative choice. All things considered, I gave this movie half a star in the visual category.
The music really caught my ear in this film, largely due to a fantastic score by Oscar nominated composer and conductor John Debney (Iron Man 2, The Jungle Book). The sound effects and music together are strong enough to be compelling, yet subtle enough to avoid overshadowing the visual component entirely. Specifically impactful moments are punctuated by powerful shifts in volume. Explosions and gun shots are mixed so expertly, the level they occur at provides an accurate indicator of how safe or vulnerable a person might actually feel in a given situation. e.g. If a bomb goes off a few miles away, you’d probably have a different reaction than if it exploded only a few feet from you. Combine this audio technique with the realistic lighting devices mentioned above, and it generates an immersive environment that nurtures the narrative. The only detracting factor in this category was a few poorly dubbed dialogue shots towards the beginning of the movie. It’s not too obvious, but on a handful of distanced dialogue expository scenes, mouths don’t match up to the words being said. This tends to be a really common mistake in older films, so it’s not that big of a deal. A mis-dubbed shot usually means the editing choices and dialogue demands didn’t coincide, and results in a ‘you get what we’ve got’ attitude. There’s nearly no way to tell if the mistake in this case was a deliberate decision or an oversight, and it’s not enough to warrant a demerit in the audio department, however it did shatter the suspense of disbelief when it occurred. Beirut receives a full-star for exceptional audio content.
Another place this film shines is its excellent performances. Over the past few years, Jon Hamm (Mad Men, The Town) has been diligently working to redefine himself following his breakthrough success as Don Draper. This feels like an entirely new role for Hamm, although his character, Mason Skiles, could probably keep pace with Draper in a drinking contest. Hamm walks a weary line in the film, revealing Mason as haunted former U.S. diplomat, still supremely confident in his abilities, but with a troubled past and a lack of purpose. Skiles is similar to James Bond in the sense that he’s a charming alcoholic and seemingly unflappable. His resolve is put to the test when he has to negotiate for the life of his estranged friend in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. The Oscar nominated English actress Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Jack Reacher) is well cast as the ambitious C.I.A. operative Sandy Crowder. Pike is an apt counterpoint to Hamm’s stoicism, and her character is often impelled to mirror Mason’s demeanor in an attempt to keep him under control. This character development allows Pike to showcase her acting range by playing the tough agent with a sensitive hidden agenda. Other standouts in this category include Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Larry Pine (The Royal Tenenbaums), and newcomer, Idir Chender. There are several other great actors featured in Beirut, but these three stood above the rest because they added believable depth and emotional capacity to their supporting characters. Another full-star for acting.
Impeccable writing helps shape Beirut into a believable thriller, but several of the concepts are a little played out. Tony Gilroy is the creative mastermind behind the story, and has in impressive writing resume including the Bourne Trilogy, Armageddon, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The Oscar nominated Gilroy crafts complex characters and weaves them through each other lives in a way that respects the intelligence of the audience, but his technique often relies on traditional stereotypes to reinforce relationships and keep action the foremost feature of the film. We’ve seen all of these character archetypes before in other movies, and their motivations and actions are seldom unpredictable. The story structure stays true to the thriller template, rising to a climactic shootout, and then quickly wrapping up the plot’s loose ends in a series of dialogue driven scenes. Regardless of these clichéd devices, the characters are given well-scripted and motivated moments that excite and entertain. I gave the story 1/2 of a star for its enjoyable spin on a redundant theme.
Beirut has style in spades. The inspiring combination of unique cinematography and complex characters under pressure creates an interesting dynamic as the audience is drawn into a familiar story with an unknown outcome. Sound and visuals are well constructed, if not always appealing, and the originality and unfamiliar environment the film is set in allows us to suspend our expectations long enough to be surprised. The visceral effect created by oscillating between calm and intense moments shatters our feelings of safety, and forces viewers to pay attention to the details while maintaining their distance. One full star for style!
And there you have it! Four stars out of a possible five. I really liked this movie, and I actually began this review by rating it at three stars. During the course of writing I was hard pressed to enforce very minor discrepancies as worthy of a formal infraction, so I went back and raised the grade a bit. I’ve watched a few other films since my last review, but none really seemed worthy of discussion. Most movies in modern cinema are very entertaining, and now there’s actually more content available for viewing than a single person could ever consume in an entire lifetime. This means we each get the privilege of choosing those works that suit our unique personality best, and that idea has certainly been driving my decisions in choosing which films to review.
Thanks again for reading (or scrolling to the bottom to click on the trailer). You can check out the current box office numbers for Beirut by visiting BoxOfficeMojo, and take a look at the extended cast and crew list on IMDb by clicking on the underlined names and titles in this article. Until next time.