BEIRUT is a great film. The Blu-ray release is less so.
By Matt Cummings
It’s uncommon for most moviegoers to see every major studio film: there’s either not enough time or not all titles are worth seeing. Only a few movies each year live up to the hype of their marketing, with many more wallowing in an uncomfortable purgatory: released but with little fanfare, condemned to a short run before fading into obscurity. Such is the case with the excellent BEIRUT, a period drama that deserves far more recognition (and perhaps Oscar consideration) than it received. It looks and sounds good (but not great) on Blu-ray, and its pitiful Supplements struggle to tell us just how good this movie really is.
It’s 1972 and Diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) is a slick but caring representative of the United States in one of the most dangerous places in the world, Beirut Lebanon. Happily married to a local woman and even considering the hosting of a local boy to the US, Mason drinks and schmoozes world leaders effortlessly, seeking a way to end the terrorist violence which has ripped this city apart. But when an unimaginable loss occurs in his life, Mason spirals into a wave of drinking that sees him lose his job and return Stateside to negotiate petty labor disputes. Ten years pass before fate intervenes again, when Mason learns that a former colleague in Beirut (Mark Pellegrino) has been kidnapped and that those responsible might be related to those tragic events years before. He is saddled with CIA Agent Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), along with a collection of dubious officials that Mason suspects have larger plans to destabilize the region. Faced with the imminent death of his friend, Mason struggles to cope with his loss while an entire region tears itself apart. The results will see nothing less than the arrival of our modern military apparatus and all the problems therein.
BEIRUT wasn’t around long enough for any buzz to get going, which is too bad as it represents for me the first great drama of 2018. It’s a slick and deep spy drama that also about one man’s struggles to put his life back together, just as a region begins its downward slide. Performances are top notch, led by Hamm who’s made for these kinds of roles. His quick wit and good looks also come with a serious amount of acting chops. This isn’t just Hamm reliving Don Draper, but a carefully nuanced performance where the emotions of loss, mistrust, and hopelessness coalesce to make Mason as real a person as Writer Tony Gilroy can craft. Mason is damaged goods, but so is Sandy who harbors a deep secret that taints her involvement. But there’s also a nice reveal here that ups the movie from being a mere brood; Gilroy doesn’t throw it in there haphazardly, and the effect adds a great new layer to the story. Dean Norris and (especially) Shea Wigham play low-life government dudes who aren’t merely mustache-twirling baddies, but deeply corrupt and hoping the kidnapping will only light the powder keg that’s become Beirut. Pike also has a lot to offer, keeping things moving by granting Crowder a more involved role than most women at the time might have enjoyed. She’s tense, dangerous, and not at all what Mason wants following him, especially once the reveal is let loose.
Director Brad Anderson stitches this dark and mysterious world into a realistic-looking and feeling one, choosing locations like Morocco and Tangiers instead of trying to fabricate this in a back lot. That lends an amazing sense of realism to things, but Anderson doesn’t stop there. He expertly orchestrates his deep and talented cast, keeping the shooting close to create more tension. Composer John Debney crafts a stirring and emotional score to add further color, never getting in the way but making his presence known throughout. I thought perhaps my affection for BEIRUT could have tainted my perception of its faults, so I asked a few friends to check it out with MoviePass; not only did they love the film, but actually thanked me for uncovering what we all consider to be a gem. It would be hard for me to find (at the time of this posting) any 2018 drama that comes close to BEIRUT, and so I hope that its release onto home video will give you and others the chance to make your own decision as to its merits.
Universal Studio’s presentation of BEIRUT is a fairly dark one, perhaps mirroring the filters that are obviously being used to take away some of the movie’s details. It’s a period piece, meant to look like the time it depicts with apparently utilizing film to give it more grain and less sharpness; but some of that effort results in a darker print than it requires. Shadows are swallowed into blacks with regularity up looks great Blu-ray transfer, bringing to life every element of war-ravaged Lebanon. Shot on the Arri Alexa platforms, we get mostly Sepias in the Middle East sequences and blues in the States scenes. Neither one takes advantage of the good bones which underlie Anderson’s print. There’s also some stuttering in many pans; I checked the digital code that came with release on AppleTV and noticed less of any issue, with every scene brighter. Things get a bit better when you totally darken the room, but watch the digital copy to see the improvement. The MPEG-4/AVC transfer isn’t a total wash, as some details do arrive, such Pike’s skin in closeups, as well as Hamm’s stubble face and chiseled chin. There is also no aliasing or artifacting, with some outdoor scenes actually revealing fine detail that’s largely missing nearly everywhere else. This is nowhere near close to reference quality, but it does enough to save Anderson’s print.
BEIRUT is presented by Universal Studios with a satisfactory but mostly unremarkable DTS-HD Master Audio source. There’s nothing bad here, but the lossless track fails to separate itself due to its topic.
There’s no slow-motion action set pieces to take advantage of the tech, so we’re mostly limited to the center channel, which dispenses the dialogue seamlessly but also contains dialed-down effects. Music from Composer John Debney rings through the forward speakers, along with some scattered effects, while the rears only show up once in awhile. Sometimes, those rears erupt with waves or gunfire. The LFE comes out to play once the action starts or during Debney’s score. It’s nice to see him doing something so unique, and the transfers rewards him. Much like its video, BEIRUT doesn’t exactly make a case for anyone discovering it, even in a discount pile.
The supplements offered in BEIRUT are, well, disappointing to say the least. This would have been a perfect film for a commentary track, or perhaps a series of historical featurettes about the civil war during the 1980’s that tore Lebanon apart. Everything here is in HD, but don’t blink your eyes, because you get a pitiful amount of content:
- The Story Behind BEIRUT (2:57): The first-time movie director brings us an insightful discussion about every element of the film, including its origins, story, pre-and post-production, and the characters. He also addresses why certain characters are either gone or perish.
- Sandy Crowder (0:51): Hamm and Pike briefly (and I mean briefly) discuss the film’s female lead.
- Trailers: DISOBEDIENCE, ON CHESIL BEACH, PAPPILON and SEVEN DAYS IN ANTEBEE.
Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/DVD/Movies Anywhere digital copy. The slipcase is embossed and colorful. As of this posting, there were no special versions available.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Don’t let the difficult package keep you from at least renting BEIRUT. It features an excellent cast, great music, and a plot with enough twists to remind you of some of the better spy thrillers out there.
The audio and video are solid but unremarkable, but it’s the many lost opportunities in the Supplements that’s hard to fathom. Hamm has proven he can work in a high-stakes drama like BEIRUT, and it’s my hope that someone takes another chance on him in these kinds of roles. I doubt this will make any push for Oscar consideration, but it’s certainly worth your time to make the case.
BEIRUT is rated R for language, some violence and a brief nude image and has runtime of 109 minutes.