Jon Hamm stars here in his first big screen leading role since television’s “Mad Men” came to an end. He plays the negotiator of the title in this complex thriller set in Beirut in 1982.
The film’s riveting opening sequence gives us the background to the story ten years earlier, when Beirut is still a beautiful and sophisticated city – the Paris of the Middle East, as it was once known. American diplomat Mason Styles (Hamm) is hosting a cocktail party, when his best friend, CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the devastating news that Mason’s soon to be adopted 13 year old son Karim (Yoau Saian Rosenberg) has been seen in the company of his elder brother, who is a known terrorist and is therefore himself a terrorist suspect. As Mason tries to defend Karim, the house is invaded by terrorists, who kill Mason’s wife and kidnap the boy.
Cut to 1982, where Mason, by now a heavy drinker and a bit of an emotional mess, is scraping a living in Boston as a labour dispute mediator. A stranger in a bar accosts him with a summons from “mutual friends” to return to Beirut, ostensibly to give a lecture. When he arrives in the city he once loved, Mason finds it teeming with military and devastated by bomb damage. The house where he once lived is reduced to rubble. He then learns the real reason for the summons. His friend Cal has been kidnapped by terrorists and the CIA and the American ambassador want him to negotiate a swap for a terrorist leader currently in held in captivity, they believe by the Israelis. As we soon learn, that terrorist is Karim’s brother and it is the now adult Karim (Idir Chender), who has kidnapped Cal.
It is not however a straightforward mission. Everyone has a secret agenda, driven by the complex politics of the Middle East situation, involving the Israelis, the Americans and the Palestinian Liberation Front, none of which they are sharing with Mason, while he has a CIA minder (Rosamund Pyke) accompanying his every move. Brownie points to the film for resisting the temptation to create a romance between the two. Their relationship is strictly business.
Although there are bursts of violent action, the story is largely dialogue driven and that secret agenda is so complicated it is often tricky to work out what the different objectives are of the various men in suits. Suffice it to say, trust no-one.
We have to depend on Mason’s reactions to guide us through this morass, which Hamm does very expressively. Potentially the most emotionally gripping scenes are his encounters with Karim, where it is up to the two actors to communicate the lost father son relationship between them without expressing it in words. As is perhaps to be expected in an American made film, even one set thirty six years in the past, Karim’s dialogue as a “terrorist” largely consists of fierce and fanatical shouting. It would have been good if the character had been given the opportunity for once to put his own political argument. French born Chender has a powerful onscreen presence and is an actor to watch out for.
This is definitely a film that benefits from being seen on the big screen. The complexities of the dialogue, which can be difficult to follow with less than perfect sound reproduction and the frequent low light in which many of the scenes are shot, will make it tricky to view on a laptop or other device. And it is well worth seeing for Hamm’s performance.