Diplomatic Exchanges

Diplomatic Exchanges

Originally called Beirut, Brad Anderson’s intelligent political drama arrives in the UK under the name, The Negotiator. While that might cause confusion for those who remember the Samuel L. Jackson-starring kidnap drama from 1998, this is a much more enticing prospect. Jon Hamm finds a role where, like his Don Draper in Mad Men, persuasion is the name of the game. He’s Mason Skiles, a confident and assured American diplomat living in Beirut in 1972.

Yet after a major terrorist-caused tragedy takes place at a cocktail party he’s hosting, the action moves on ten years with Mason now booze-soaked and earning a crust from mediating labour disputes back in Boston. Then he gets a mysterious summons back to the Middle East, where he finds a civil war-ravaged Beirut a shadow of its former self. His former colleague Cal (Mark Pellegrino) has been kidnapped and his abductors have asked for Mason by name to conduct the negotiations. In return, they want a terrorist who may be held by the Israeli government.

Discovering his whereabouts is just the first knotty problem Mason must unravel, with or without the help of Shea Whigham’s embassy suit and Dean Norris’ CIA operative. Also along for the ride is Rosamund Pike’s cultural attaché Sandy Crowder, Mason’s contact on the ground, who gradually comes to see things his way. With Cal’s kidnappers including someone from Mason’s past, there’s much to chew on in a plot that that sounds cliché-riddled on paper but comes alive on screen.

Written by Tony Gilroy, whose work includes the Bourne movies, the script was penned back in 1991, when it was very loosely based on the kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley seven years earlier. If there were any lingering cobwebs, director Brad Anderson blows them right away. A highly underrated director, he once again brings the same compelling touch and impressive storytelling ability he’s applied to films like The Machinist, Transsiberian and Session 9.

In one of his best post-Mad Men roles to date, Hamm is excellent as Mason, a man who needs to save himself as much as his old friend.  Perhaps Pike, who has increasingly been seeking out challenging roles of late, is left a little short-changed with an underdeveloped character. But largely The Negotiator is a taut and well-constructed piece at a time when it’s increasing difficult to find adult cinema grappling with a subject as complex as the Middle East.

James Mottram

The Negotiator opens on 10 August. For more details, click here.

1. Stills fromThe Negotiator.