Beirut is one of those frustrating films that doesn't quite know where its place is. Directed by Brad Anderson featuring a screenplay by Tony Gilroy, a simple by the book espionage thriller is undone by the simple mechanics of time period and place and narrative thrust. A terrific performance from Jon Hamm and the crackling Gilroy makeup a lot of lost ground and keep the film entertaining. At its best, Beirut is engaging enough to be entertaining, but one can't feel the loss of potential if the film stuck to its guns and didn't get distracted by some unnecessary politicising. The Blu-ray features a good A/V presentation while bonus features are so slim as to be a virtual non-starter. If you're in need of something to divert your attention Beirut is well Worth A Look.
I love a great espionage thriller; tall tales of everyday men or women tasked with going above and beyond in situations where one wrong word could mean their death. It's a terrific hook for a fish out of water sort of story while adding urgency and tension. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy is no slouch when it comes to crafting this sort of narrative with the original Bourne films and flicks like State of Play and Michael Clayton - stories about people navigating tense situations with mounting pressures. Unfortunately, Beirut isn't playing the game with all of the pieces on the board. Directed by Brad Anderson, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike in addition to a great supporting cast deliver committed performances, but the film loses itself when it tries to be a period allegory about the modern political landscape.
1972. Lebanon is the shining example of peace and prosperity in the Middle East. Beirut is a diamond example of a multicultural city on the rise and American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) can't sing the praises of the people enough to the foreign dignitaries he and his wife Nadia (Leïla Bekhti) meet at the dinner party they're hosting. Everything changes when the party is attacked leaving Nadia dead. 10 years later, Mason is a broken man working as an insurance negotiator by day and floundering as a functioning alcoholic by night. When his best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino), the CIA attache to Lebanon is kidnapped, Mason is pressed back into service as the kidnappers will negotiate only with him. Accompanied by an undercover agent called Crowder (Rosamund Pike), Mason will have to confront the ghosts of his past and return to the city that was once called the Paris of the Middle East and save his friend's life.
To the credit of Beirut, screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Brad Anderson stick to the tried and true espionage spy thriller formula. There is the damaged goods hero played to perfection by Jon Hamm. There is the cagy but focused side operative played by Rosamund Pike. There are the agency rats that are only interested in protecting their intelligence apparatus rather than the life of one of their own. There's a larger conspiracy at work than what's initially apparent. But because everything is by the book, there isn't a whole lot of leeway in exploring character dynamics or concocting fresh surprises. About the only thing original that Beirut tries to do is ground its period storyline in with the modern political landscape which is a bigger leap than it can appropriately land.
That action of providing some sort of modern allegory is the principal misstep of Beirut. Had the film been content with keeping things strictly fictitious, maybe it could have worked out a little cleaner. But a plot point in the second act spills the beans when the story tries to push an invented terrorist character and side plots into real-life tragedies and through a thin veil loosely apply it to modern day issues. It's an overreach that didn't need to be made and when it happens it really pulls the film out of place. Simply put, it doesn't know how to use this information because it was never relevant. It becomes an odd distraction that grinds the film's action to a near dead stop when it should be ramping things up.
The first half of the film worked because it only used the events of the era as a loose framework. Think of Le Carré Cold War thrillers like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or a thriller like Michael Apted's Gorky Park. These are stories that take place within the constructs of a political climate, establish tension, suspense, and raise the stakes without getting too specific about real-life events. Had Beirut stuck to its roots, it would have been a pitch-perfect thriller. When it tries to have a message to modern day events, it attempts to carry a gallon of water in a colander. It doesn't work and bogs the pace down. The film does find the time in the last act to right the ship and find a fitting conclusion, but the middle is pretty muddy.
Thankfully, director Brad Anderson's sense of pace and his squad of actors including a solid turn from Rosamund Pike as well as a chilling round from Dean Norris keep the ship afloat. Overall, Beirut offers up some pretty good entertainment value. Much of the film is a tight and tense thriller with Hamm delivering one of his best performances as a man dealing with his past while facing an uncertain future. At its core, Beirut is a simple, tried and true espionage thriller - and to that end, it works. When the film tries to be more than the sum of its working pieces, it overplays its hand and whatever message it tries to tell doesn't hold up against much scrutiny. For pure and simple entertainment value, the film works and I enjoyed the ride, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that it could have been a lot more if it had done a little less.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Beirut arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal Studios in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital set. Pressed onto a BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard two-disc case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for upcoming Universal releases before arriving at a static-image main menu with Universal's standard navigation options. The digital copy is Movies Anywhere compatible.
While much of Beirut looks amazing and can stand toe to toe against most modern releases in the arena of clarity, color, and black levels and contrast, some pesky source issues keep this 2.39:1 1080p transfer from achieving greatness. Now, as this film aims to recreate early 80s middle east, it opts for the standard dusky yellow golden earth tones. As a result, details tend to waffle a bit here and there. In brightly lit scenes, details look fantastic offering up terrific facial and clothing details. When things get dark and shadowy, the image tends to soften and blacks also become a little less even and have a flattening effect. Largely this is by design, but it does create an uneven viewing experience.
Digital additions to the landscape also tend to stand out and overhead shots are especially problematic as edges display obvious aliasing and a bit of banding appears. The film maintains a handheld appearance and when things become particularly intense the shaking increases creating another set of unsightly anomalies. Again, a lot o appears to be by design and as I missed this theatrically, I only have this Blu-ray encode as a reference. As I said at the beginning, much of the film is drop-dead gorgeous, it just goes some moments with a few issues that are baked into the bread and can be a bit off-putting. By no means a dreadful looking transfer just not as picture perfect as one may naturally expect from an average release these days.
While the video transfer may suffer from some cooked in anomalies, the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is strong and effective stuff when and where necessary. The mix makes great use of space and ambient noise to fill busy scenes and give a great sense of immersion. A sequence in a building where intense negotiations, while exploding bombs get closer and closer, is a real standout moment. The dialog is clean and clear throughout - even when things get intense fidelity is never an issue. Even during quiet conversational moments, there is enough background activity to keep the channels active. Levels are spot on at all times without needing any boosting so you can set it and forget it. All around, this is a solid mix that serves the film well.
The collection of bonus features for Beirut are sorely lacking any real depth. The briefest of brief EPK style material with the tried and true talking head bits without any substance or enlightening content about the making of the film.
The Story Behind Beirut (HD 2:57)
Sandy Crowder (HD 00:51)
Beirut is a fairly straight-forward spy thriller that unfortunately gets bogged down in an ill-conceived attempt at delivering a needless message. Director Brad Anderson smartly manages characters and Tony Gilroy's dialog crackles with terrific performances headlined by John Hamm and Rosamund Pike. The film proves to be entertaining when it isn't trying too hard to say something, but there are frequent slowdowns that don't hold up. Overall it's well worth a spin, just don't demand too much from it. Universal delivers Beirut on Blu-ray with a transfer indicative of its purposeful stylized nature and a solid and effective audio mix. Sadly bonus features don't go anywhere exciting. At the end of the day, I enjoyed Beirut but I didn't love it as much as I hoped I would. It's a good way to burn a couple hours so on that note this one is Worth A Look.