“In Lebanon, it’s never over for anyone. You cannot write off anyone or anything in this country” —Saad Hariri.
American diplomat Mason Skiles thought it was over and he was wrong
The film Beirut is an exciting and, yet, typical for a Hollywood spy thriller. The good guy suffers a tragedy, hits bottom, and is called on to save the day. His reluctance to get involved turns into his curious return to Beirut followed by thrilling action. What else would you expect from screenwriter Tony Gilroy, the award-winning writer of the first fourBourne films. If you like Jason Bourne in action, you’ll love Beirut.
As you can tell by its name, this film is set in Beirut but it wasn’t filmed there. It was filmed in Tangier, Morocco with one small scene shot in Rhode Island.
In 1972, American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) and his wife were living in Beirut and they wanted to adopt Karim, a 13-year old Lebanese orphan. The Skiles hosted a party and Mason heard from his best friend, CIA Agent Cal Riley who had startling information about Karim. Seconds later, terrorists attack the party and Skiles’ wife was killed.
Ten years later and living in Boston, Mason is a heavy-drinking labor mediator. He was “urged” to return to Beirut to negotiate the release of a hostage – his old friend Cal. It won’t be that easy. Few things in the Middle East are. He has to negotiate the exchange of Cal for a terrorist leader held by Israeli secret police. Do the Israeli’s really have him? The film comes at you with twists and turns as the writers add into the mix of corrupt bureaucrats from all sides – American, Israeli, and Palestinian.
From screenwriter Gilroy’s viewpoint, “the PLO didn’t have exemplary behavior. Israel did not have exemplary behavior. The U.S. State Department did not have exemplary behavior. Nobody looked good at that moment in time except for the hero of this story.” Is there anyone who Mason can trust? In the end, it took Mason and Cal, two old friends who know each other well, to exchange coded words in a conversation that lead to Cal’s successful release.
There is more to this film than just the storyline. Whenever a film features the Middle East, Arab Americans are justifiably sensitive to the portrait of the people and places. They’ve experienced far too many unkind and stereotypical portrayals. With the name Beirut, one would naturally expect to see images of the city. Not so. There are a few aerial shots of the Corniche but mostly it’s the Moroccan rubble that we see. The film opens with beautiful scenes of Beirut from 1972. We see the people enjoying their modern lifestyle – driving new cars, beautifully tanned on pristine beaches, la dolce vita. Those were the days – the days before the civil war.
Then we have the lead character describing Lebanon and Beirut to a visiting member of Congress:
“if you wanna understand Lebanon, think of a boarding house without a landlord. Okay? And the only thing that the tenants have in common is their talent for betrayal. So these people have been living together, cheek by jowl, for twenty centuries. Two thousand years of revenge, blood feuds, vendetta, murder. One night, there’s a storm. Raining like all hell. There’s a knock at the door. Who is it? It’s the Palestinians. They want in. They’ve been up and down the block, doors slammed in their face. They’re cold, they’re tired. They want in and they want in now. So the house is thrown into confusion. Tenants arguing. Some of them violently opposed. Some of them think, “Let ‘em in, they’ll be gone by tomorrow morning.” Some of them think, “If I let them in tonight, I’ll have an ally against my enemy down the hall. Some of ‘em are terrified as to what happens if they keep the door shut. So it isn’t until after the Palestinians move in that the other people in the house realize the tragedy of the situation. That the Palestinians want nothing more than to just burn down the Israeli house next door. Welcome to Beirut.”
This presentation was uttered to his guests by Mason Skiles. What was the point of this line? To have been living together for thousands of years, Lebanese people have been kind rather than revengeful, loving rather than murdering. What was Gilroy thinking when he wrote that?
Then, as the movie goes, we find the stereotypical Arab scenes that are out of place and that showed a lack of knowledge of the region. A bride and groom climbing onto the rubble of a bombed out building for a wedding photo. Camels at the beach? Really? Are there camels anywhere in Beirut?
While Lebanon suffered greatly during the civil war, it was not to the extent shown in the film. Arab America President, Warren David, was in Lebanon in 1981 and saw much of the destruction. “There were bombed out buildings and rubble in the streets but not to the extent shown in the film,” said David. “There were a number of nice places in Beirut with no damage. Too bad the producers chose to ignore the great aspects and beautiful parts of Beirut.”
There is a way the producers could improve the film. As they opened the film with beauty shots of Beirut before the civil war, they should go full circle and close the film with beauty shots of Lebanon since the end of the civil war. The film shows Mason Stiles going full circle from respected diplomat to down-on-his-luck mediator to a better version of himself. Just like Beirut.
“Beirut” opens Wednesday, April 11, and is playing in movie theaters across the country. Click here for theater locations.
By Fred Shwaery/Arab America Contributing Writer
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