I was excited upon first hearing about this film. A film called Beirut! So it’ll be about Lebanese people during the height of their civil war? No. A film about Palestinian refugees, perhaps, living in Beirut? No. A film about Arabs at all? No. Beirut is about none of these things and that’s one of its biggest problems. While focusing on the events happening to and around Jon Hamm’s character, director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Tony Gilroy bring to life a world in which the Arab characters are secondary in a film set in, as the title implies, Beirut. In addition, the film heavily leans into stereotypes of Arabs, in which they aren’t afforded humanity and are only considered the “bad guys” of the story when the story, in all honesty, should’ve been about them to begin with.
It’s 1972 and the film opens with Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) giving the abridged, overly simplified, and western version of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and what that’s meant for their neighboring countries. It’s immediately eyebrow-raising and doesn’t really get better from there. Mason is a U.S. diplomat and he’s living well, married to Nadia (Leila Bekhti), and the pair has taken in an orphan named Karim (Idir Chender). They’re living in Beirut, Lebanon at the height of its economic glory, back when it was referred to as “the Paris of the Middle East.” But, like with most things, not everything is as good as it seems. Ten years later, after Mason has lost everything and is no longer a diplomat, he’s called back to Beirut to help save his friend, Cal (Mark Pellegrino), who’s been kidnapped. Mason finds himself working with CIA operatives Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) and Donald Gaines (Dean Norris) to negotiate for the life of Cal and so he’s involuntarily drawn back to the life he left behind.
Beirut is a by-the-book film. Part espionage and part thriller, the movie is more concerned with the plot than its characters and, besides Rosamund Pike’s decent Arabic language skills, the film drags and isn’t well-paced. In a city far more rich in culture and identity, placing Jon Hamm’s character at the center of a multi-layered conflict happening in Lebanon in 1982 and keeping the film tethered to the outsider perspective is a mistake. Beirut never once allows itself to become anything but a drab thriller. None of the Lebanese characters are fully fledged people (nor are many of them actually played by Lebanese people) with concrete reasons for their actions. We don’t see their lives, nor are they anything beyond the cardboard cutout terrorist characters that Hollywood seems to love portraying. It’s a warped view of the Middle East when the entire plot is entirely from the white man’s perspective and largely involves the U.S. government. Even the setting doesn’t look like what Beirut actually looks like (because it was shot elsewhere) and so lacks any authenticity.
Even more frustrating is that Leila Bekhti’s character dies not long after the movie begins. Why? For Hamm’s pain and to be his reason to leave Beirut in the first place. Afterward, she is barely acknowledged and, as the plot takes precedence over its characters, the audience will forget she ever existed. Beirut ramps up its action as it goes on, with a reveal that comes midway through the film which is meant to have an emotional impact, but it falls so very flat. And it’s ultimately because there’s no foundation or emotional attachment to any of these characters that the impact is meaningless. The good performances by the cast should be mentioned, but even they aren’t enough to save the film from its poor execution, lack of character development, and stereotypical portrayal of Arab characters.
If a film is set in another country, it should feature people from that particular country as more than just bad guys or extras milling around in the background. Beirut’s events are filtered through the lens of the west and its views on the Middle East are shaky and and warped as a result. Not only is the title misleading, but the film doesn’t do any of its Arabic-speaking characters justice, nor does it portray their humanity. Beirut may have honestly been set anywhere else, as the city doesn’t hold any significance to the overall story besides being a place where the characters happen to be. Arabs as terrorists has been played out, and it’s lazy writing to not expand on their characters. The film simply adds to the negative portrayals of Arabs in media without any thought, leaning into the white savior aspect instead. In many ways, Beirut isn’t any different from the plethora of films just like it, and it’s upsetting and frankly insulting that it’s named after a city that’s far more multi-dimensional in reality than the film ever allows it to be.