Penned by Bourne and Michael Clayton’s Tony Gilroy some 30 years ago, The Negotiator (2018) FKA Beirut is a busy espionage thriller that serves up a hearty serving of Hollywood in war-torn Lebanon in 1982.
We are introduced to Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a US diplomat living a life of cocktail parties and smooth-talk during the city’s heyday of the early 70s. No sooner have we found our bearings than we find out that Skiles has been employing Karim, the 13 year-old brother of a suspect from the Munich massacre: a bombshell that Skiles feels the full force of immediately as the PLO storms the scene when Karim is kidnapped by his own brother and Skiles’ wife is murdered.
It’s a great opening, a flashback that plays back as a nightmare, relived daily by the now alcoholic Skiles living on the East coast of America negotiating petty corporate disputes. Jon Hamm’s acting pedigree is on show once again as the world-weary harborer of a dark past, and makes the 30 year wait worth it for his casting alone.
However, there is something a little too slapdash about The Negotiator. After the success of Argo (2012) it’s easy to imagine the frenzy of producers raiding their filing cabinets for the next big Middle Eastern thriller: digging out a script by a bankable screenwriter in Gilroy and drafting in a more than capable director in Brad Anderson (Transsiberian, The Machinist). So when a man shows up at a bar and gives Skiles the envelope containing the usual random selection of cash/passport/plane ticket and the typical lack of a concrete explanation for why he is needed back in Beirut, the film begins to flirt with the hackneyed Hollywood devices that threaten to hamper the interesting blend of personal and political crisis served up by the film’s opening sequences.
These one liners not only reveal a laziness to the representation of a city ravaged by a violent, political complexity, but also show where The Negotiator’s blindspot really lies.
Upon landing in Beirut, now ravaged by civil war and impressively recreated by a film working on a small budget, we learn that one of Skiles’ former colleagues has been kidnapped by a terrorist group, and that they will only negotiate the terms of his release with Skiles. What follows is a plot thick with the usual ulteriorly motivated CIA agents and ‘trust no one’ intrigue. The film moves at a good pace, but ultimately either strays in a familiar direction, or takes unnecessary twists and turns. This is at the expense of fleshing out a historical context, or focusing a little more on the characters orbiting around Skiles, with Colin Stinton, Shea Whigham and Mark Pellegrino all impressing. Rosamund Pike, in particular, is worse off for the meandering storyline as Skiles’ liaison.
The diplomatic landscape remains vague and secondary to a plot that revolves too tightly around the Hollywood narrative at the expense of a clearer understanding of current affairs. Met at the airport by a Lebanese driver, Skiles witnesses someone getting shot and is given a shrug and a ‘Welcome to Beirut’. In a meeting with Mossad, Skiles is served up a gruesome reminder of the atrocities committed by the terrorist he wants to barter with, only to glibly cut short the emotional soundtrack with ‘so how much?’. These one liners not only reveal a laziness to the representation of a city ravaged by a violent, political complexity, but also show where The Negotiator’s blindspot really lies.
Ultimately, The Negotiator seems a film where too much focus has gone into the jigsaw of its narrative. It boasts a snappy storyline, but it is one that stands on the shoulders of the city that gives it its name, and on the historical stage that enables its existence.
Director: Brad Anderson
Stars: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike,
Runtime: 109 minutes