Beirut, the new Hollywood production by director Brad Anderson and Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, is getting mostly good reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 78 percent. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of the reviewers aren’t any more familiar with the actually existing city of Beirut, Lebanon, than the film’s director and screenwriter are.
It tells the story of Mason Francis Skiles, the deputy CIA chief in Beirut in the early 1970s shortly before the civil war broke out. Terrorists kill his wife, and he leaves—with the intention to leave forever—saying he wouldn’t go back to Beirut if it was the last place on earth.
Ten years later, a fictional group calling itself the Militia of Islamic Liberation kidnaps his old friend and current chief of Middle East operations Cal Riley. They say they’ll trade him for the release of Rafid Abu Rajal, a man the Israelis insist is guilty of terrorist attacks against Flight 305 and the Munich Olympics, among others. The United States doesn’t normally negotiate with terrorists or agree to prisoner exchanges, but if Riley is interrogated and broken, he could cough up the names of undercover agents all over the region. It’s a terrible dilemma, and in the end it’s resolved satisfactorily.
The trailer suggests solid performances by John Hamm, who starred as Don Draper in Mad Men, and Rosamund Pike who played the unforgettable Amy in Gone Girl, and the poster promises us the most tantalizing of settings. “Beirut, 1982. The Paris of the Middle East was Burning.”
Beirut really was (and still is) the Paris of the Middle East, and it really was burning in 1982. For a political thriller set in a war zone, you can’t beat that place and time for the setting. The film itself, though, doesn’t even hint that Beirut is the Middle East’s Paris, doesn’t even suggest that it’s a place of beauty and high culture as well as of violence, doesn’t even mention that it’s a richly textured hybrid of the West and the East that stands dramatically apart from the rest of the region. No. The city of Beirut in Beirut could have been Baghdad in 2006 or Aleppo a couple of years ago.
There are elements of Baghdad, to be sure, in Beirut, then and now. Beirut is what you get if toss Paris, Miami and Baghdad into a blender and press purée. It is the only city on earth where you can find a Ferrari dealership mere yards from bullet-pocked apartment towers, decadent nightclubs within walking distance of territory ruled by an Iranian-backed Islamist militia, and elegant French-style cafes a five-minute drive from immiserated Palestinian refugee camps.
The waterfront at Zaitunay Bay could be in Florida, Saifi village is startlingly European, and the Hezbollah-controlled suburb south of the city is the kind of opressive urban slum you’d expect to find hundreds of miles away, inland and to the east, in Iraq or Iran. Such stark and even violent contradictions make Beirut an endlessly fascinating city and a potential “character” in its own right, like Los Angeles in Michael Connelly’s crime novels, New Orleans in Anne Rice’s vampire saga, or Baltimore in The Wire. Absolutely none of what makes Beirut Beirut makes its way onto the screen or into the story. The place seems composed of rubble, slums, dodgy checkpoints and little else.
The movie was jarringly yet predictably filmed in Morocco, specifically in run-down neighborhoods of Casablanca. We can partly forgive the location scouters for this. Morocco has a well-developed film industry, and the country is famously stable. Unlike in Lebanon, war is hardly more likely to break out tomorrow than it is in France. What’s less forgivable is the dearth of effort to find neighborhoods and streets in Morocco with a French flavor that look and feel at least a little bit like Beirut—such as this one, this one or this one—or to make even a token effort to capture the people and culture where the story is supposed to take place. The film even includes a shot of camels on the beach. There are no camels anywhere in Lebanon, let alone on the beach in the capital city.
There are no sympathetic Lebanese characters in this movie. Worse, there virtually no Lebanese characters at all, not even villains. Aside from the American characters, we get three Palestinian bad guys, a handful of Israeli walk-ons, and that’s it. All are one-dimensional. The writer and director might as well film a drama in the Moscow suburbs about Americans and call it Paris.
In Beirut, Beirut is a placeholder for a generic Middle Eastern disastercape imagined by people who have never seen any of them in person and have read nothing about the place but newspaper articles and Wikipedia entries. Beirut isn’t really even set in Beirut. It’s set in the city Americans think Beirut is if they know virtually nothing about it. If the writer and director had done their homework and brought in some experts as consultants, the film would be more authentic and more interesting and compelling—especially for those in the audience who don’t know Beirut from Raqqa.
By: Michael Totten
(Middle East Forum)
Originally published in the World Affairs Journal
Michael Totten is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum