The Negotiator Review
Before writing the four Bourne films, screenwriter Tony Gilroy had long since completed the script for The Negotiator (titled Beirut for its US release). His straight forward political thriller is wrapped up in the geopolitics of a far more complicated time when the Americans, PLO, Israel and local Muslim, Christian and Druze groups were all present in the Lebanese capital.
The story itself is set over a 20-year span yet its genesis stretches across three decades as Gilroy penned the original screenplay in 1991 before The Devil's Advocate put his writing credentials on the map. A succession of studios passed on tackling the idea as no-one wanted to be left holding such a political hot-potato leaving Gilroy to move onto other projects. But the passing of time and a distancing from events meant the script was eventually dusted off and brought to the attention of director Brad Anderson.
Starting in Beirut in 1972, it introduces American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) as chief negotiator for his government in Lebanon and a key player in the local region. The reception he’s hosting for a group of visiting US congressmen takes a sudden, violent turn south, leaving his good friend CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino) grappling with a heavy conscience.
Ten years later Mason is back in the States running a small-time mediation firm before he is coerced into returning to Beirut by the CIA. Upon his arrival he is greeted by Col. Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham), Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), Ambassador Frank Whalen (Larry Pine) and Sandy Parker (Rosamund Pike), who tell him Cal has been kidnapped and his captors have specifically asked for Mason to negotiate his freedom.
Mason has long since hit the bottle but still possesses a sharp negotiating mind, although the real-end game is going on between those who forced him to come back to a city he desperately wants to forget for personal reasons. The bad guys aren’t necessarily only those holding rocket launchers and semi-automatics with Gilroy’s script pointing the finger of blame at most of the parties vying against each other for power in the region.
Hamm isn’t once asked to pick up a gun in anger and it’s left to his gift of the gab to get him out of – and into – some tricky spots. For such a simple plot the narrative becomes unnecessarily convoluted in places, with names of interested parties being thrown about and serious looking men in suits saying some very serious things. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Americans are the only ones given much attention, with Arab voices restricted to moments of anger and violence and little insight as to their political motivation. Perhaps the belief is the audience interested in this sort of film will already have an understanding of the wider scale issues which, if true, would automatically narrow down its chances of success.
Anderson's direction is functional and he struggles to give a clear representation of the city beyond the crumbling architecture and typical war-torn imagery. Showing the occasional shelled out building, heavily armed checkpoint or mosque covered skyline is a cut and paste method of showing life for those stuck in Beirut. Björn Charpentier’s cinematography does manage to create a more handsome aesthetic than you might expect for such a small budget film which ensures it has widescreen cinematic appeal.
The casting of Jon Hamm is a good fit as the charismatic negotiator, an actor who should never be cast in anything that doesn't require him to wear a suit while carrying a drink in his hand. For all his good work there is a lack of urgency and the stakes always feel low, despite the high-risk gambles being made, and aside from one or two moments of noteworthy drama the film is mostly flat and non-dimensional. At one time this may have been a dangerous script to adapt, but 27 years later it plays out like a product of its time.