Bad News, ‘Beirut’: Hollywood Films About the Middle East Always Tank

Jon Hamm is hoping to succeed where the likes of Sean Connery and Leonardo DiCaprio failed and have a box-office hit with a topical movie set in the Mideast. Good luck with that

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Jon Hamm in "Beirut."
Jon Hamm as former U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles in "Beirut."Credit: High Wire IP, LLC
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

It takes a brave person to make a movie set in the Middle East – which is perhaps why it took “Beirut” 27 years to reach the big screen.

The film arrives just as Saudi Arabia is poised to reopen its cinema doors next week. But the Saudis were probably wise to offer the crowd-pleasing “Black Panther” as the first film of their new era rather than the Jon Hamm thriller in which someone gets kidnapped in the Lebanese capital – especially as they’re doubtless still quite sensitive about Lebanon and abductions given the events of last fall.

Writer Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” movies) originally penned “Beirut” way back in 1991, his tale loosely inspired by the tragic kidnapping of the CIA’s Beirut station head, William Buckley, in 1984: The American agent was kidnapped and tortured by Hezbollah, eventually being murdered some 15 months after his abduction.

Although there was reportedly plenty of interest in the concept from top stars and directors, Gilroy told the Boston Herald recently the reason it never got made at the time was that his script “was considered politically inflammatory. It’s harsh on the Reagan White House, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, and was considered too hot to handle for mainstream moviemaking. Then it just disappeared.”

The official trailer of "Beirut"Credit: Youtube

In a trick that David Blaine would admire, the project has finally resurfaced more than two decades later, with “Mad Men” star Hamm cast in the lead role of Mason Skiles – a name I thought could only exist in the movies, until I googled it.

He’s a former U.S. diplomat who reluctantly returns to the Lebanese capital at the height of the civil war in 1982, tasked with leading negotiations to secure the return of a kidnapped CIA agent. Naturally, there’s also a personal element, with the chief kidnapper being none other than a Palestinian refugee Skiles treated like a son during his previous stint in Lebanon.

“Beirut” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but it was the release of the trailer online that triggered an avalanche of abuse from the Lebanese community. The first complaint was that the film doesn’t feature a single Lebanese actor and trades on Arabs-as-terrorists stereotypes; second, the film wasn’t even shot in Beirut; and third, the film is being released on the anniversary of the start of the Lebanese Civil War (April 13, 1975).

Unfortunately for the Lebanese, things are worse than they feared. The film – originally called “High Wire Act” – was shot entirely on location in Tangier, which was turned into war-torn 1980s Beirut by an Israeli production designer, Arad Sawat.

A scene from "Beirut," with Rosamund Pike as CIA agent Sandy Crowder. The film's recreation of 1982 Beirut was overseen by Israeli production designer Arad Sawat.Credit: Sife Eddine El Amine / High Wire

Rubbing salt further into Lebanese wounds, the film’s director, Brad Anderson, told website The Tracking Board this week that trying to recreate Beirut wasn’t hard since Sawat had been there at the time. “He was a soldier in the ‘80s, so he knew what the roadblocks would look like, what the Palestinian guys would be wearing. He was very aware of the look and the feel of the world that we were trying to create,” said Anderson, clearly never planning to visit the Beirut Film Festival.

I think we can save the Lebanese film censor the paperwork and just assume that “Beirut” will not be appearing at the local fleapits of Tripoli, Sidon, etc., anytime soon.

The film’s biggest headache, though, is that it’s set in a part of the world that has historically always been box office poison. Sure, there have been movies set in the Middle East and North Africa that were huge hits – “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Casablanca,” obviously; plus “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Jewel of the Nile” and the “Mummy” franchise – but none that were contemporary.

The rule in Hollywood appears to be this: You can have films that feature scenes in the Middle East, but if you want a return on your investment, you’d better use it as brief exotic backdrop and then hightail it back to the West.

Perfect examples: Brad Pitt zombie thriller “World War Z,” which pays a flying visit to Jerusalem; Tom Cruise climbing outside the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”; and master detective Hercule Poirot solving a crime in Jerusalem’s Old City at the start of Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder On the Orient Express” (Malta stood in for the Holy City in both “Z” and “Orient,” by the way).

The problem is twofold: First, there’s the limited appetite for films set anywhere outside of the United States or galaxies far away. Then there’s the near-certain abuse the filmmakers will get for how they have represented the locals and their country. It’s a lose-lose.

Yet despite this, the great and the good (as well as the not so great and not so good) have occasionally tried turning the desert wastelands into Hollywood oases. Here are seven examples of Hollywood flops in the Middle East “Beirut” will be hoping not to mimic

'A Hologram for the King' (2016)

Tom Hanks plays a sad-sack salesman traveling to Saudi Arabia, hoping to sell the king a video teleconferencing system (to be demonstrated by the titular hologram). A fish-a-long-way-out-of-water tale, this adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel was a rare flop for two-time Oscar winner Hanks. And, like “Beirut,” most of it was filmed in Morocco.

'Body of Lies' (2008)

Leonardo DiCaprio! Russell Crowe! Director Ridley Scott! What could possibly go wrong for this thriller about a CIA operative hunting down a Bin Laden-esque terrorist in the “towelhead monarchy” of Jordan (to quote Crowe’s corpulent cynic)? Well, try middling reviews and U.S. box office that was barely half of what the film cost to make. And of course, this one was shot in Morocco, too.

'The Kingdom' (2007)

Four FBI agents travel to Saudi Arabia to investigate the deadly bombing of a U.S. compound in Riyadh, in Peter Berg’s thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper. Another box office dud (despite being heavily cut from its reported two and a half hour original running time), this was a nobler failure than many of its peers, but a failure nevertheless. Due to political sensitivities, the film was largely shot in Arizona – presumably because Morocco was already booked.

'Jarhead' (2005)

Here’s a tip for producers: When so many Americans want to get their troops out of the Middle East, it’s probably reasonable to assume they won’t be interested in watching a drama about either conflicts in Iraq at their local multiplex. That’s true when it’s a good film like “Green Zone” (2003), and it’s doubly true when it’s a misfiring one like “Jarhead,” which again features Jamie Foxx. Once more, that authentic Middle Eastern vibe was created by filming in Arizona, and Mexico.

'The Ambassador' (1984)

Now here’s a curio: a film about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Kind of. The wife of the U.S. ambassador to Israel is having an affair with a Palestinian terrorist – something the ambassador decides to, er, use to his advantage while trying to negotiate a peace deal. The credits say this film is “suggested” by an Elmore Leonard novel, but you’d never guess it as Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson (in his last film role) and Ellen Burstyn do their best not to look too embarrassed by it all. We can only hope the planned film adaptation of the hit play “Oslo,” about the 1991 peace talks, is a little more subtle and a lot more intelligent.

'The Next Man' (1976)

Ever wonder what Sean Connery would sound like playing an Arab diplomat? Well, watch him play a Russian submarine officer or an Irish-American cop and you’ll get the idea. Connery is, get this, Khalil Abdul-Muhsen, who wants to make nice with the Israelis and also make them a member of OPEC (that’s right, Israel – forever known as the land of milk and oil). His plan is as well received as a Netanyahu UN speech, and soon he’s the subject of various assassination attempts. The film (aka "Arab Conspiracy") is summed up by its still nonsensical tagline: “In the world of spying and dying, love is the ultimate weapon.”

'Harum Scarum' (1965)

If anyone wonders when Elvis Presley hit rock bottom, this Mideast musical is Exhibit A. The King plays Johnny Tyronne, an actor promoting his new film in the Middle East when he’s kidnapped and ordered to assassinate the king of a fictional kingdom. Loosely based on Rudolph Valentino’s silent film “The Sheik,” this regularly features in so-bad-it’s-good film lists. But don’t be fooled – it’s just bad, “Harem Holiday” song and all.

One final tip for filmmakers still tempted to put the Middle East onto the big screen: Follow in Sacha Baron Cohen’s footsteps with “The Dictator” (2012) and set it in a fictional, farcical kingdom – thus allowing you to get away with murder, much like the real-life dictators themselves.

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