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New Release Review - THE NEGOTIATOR

THE NEGOTIATOR review
A former CIA agent is called back to negotiate the release of an old friend taken hostage by terrorists in Beirut.







Review by Ren Zelen

Directed by: Brad Anderson

Starring: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Jay Potter, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Khalid Benchagra, Mark Pellegrino

THE NEGOTIATOR poster

The Negotiator (originally titled ‘Beirut’) is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore – instead television and Netflix appear to have become the forums for stories about international diplomacy and political intrigue.

The current generation has grown up being accustomed to seeing the Middle East as problematic and in irreconcilable turmoil. We have perhaps grown jaded about the seemingly perpetual warfare and religious conflicts of the region, but back in 1972, life was different in the Mediterranean nation of Lebanon, north of Israel, when Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the East’.

The Negotiator introduces us to Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) a CIA operative working undercover teaching in 1970s Beirut, where he lives the good life with his beautiful wife, Nadia; their close-to-adopted son, Karim (Yoav Sadian), whom they've rescued from conflict; and their best friends, couple Cal (Mark Pellegrino) and Alice (Kate Fleetwood). Cal is also a valuable CIA agent, as both he and Mason are men who are able to navigate the complex waters of Middle Eastern culture and politics.

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One evening as Mason hosts a party for U.S. officials in his home, Cal arrives late. Flustered, he informs Mason that 13-year-old Karim is wanted for questioning in relation to his older brother, Raffik, a fugitive terrorist.

Mason protests to the agency officials waiting outside, but before he gets very far, gunmen enter his home and Karim is abducted by associates of the boy's terrorist brother, Raffik. Panic among the guests ensues and shots are fired inside the house – Mason’s wife is caught in the crossfire and his comfortable life begins to fall apart.

10 years later, Mason is back in the U.S. running a failing, two-man legal firm which specialises in small union disputes. Now a widower, he has become an unkempt alcoholic suffering from depression. Then, out of the blue, he is contacted by an agent. It transpires that the CIA again has need of him in Beirut, and they give him little choice but to go.

Mason arrives to find that civil war and PLO attacks have tragically turned what was once the lovely city of Beirut into little more than dust and rubble. His beloved former home is now divided up into ruined zones of warring factions (Morocco standing in for war-ravaged Lebanon).

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He is tasked with a life-or-death mission: to negotiate the safe return of his estranged friend, Cal, who has been taken hostage. It will require great skill to negotiate with volatile terrorists, and although Mason would prefer to drink away his sorrows, he is plunged into a life-threatening situation both for himself and for his old friend. But, as ever, there is more going on in the internal political gameplaying than would meet the eye, and the negotiating situation is far from straightforward and even more dangerous than it would seem.

Screenwriter Tony Gilroy is best known for twisty thrillers in which American characters, especially agents of the government, are often complicit in shady political dealings, (such as in his previous outings in the Bourne franchise and for the film Michael Clayton). The Negotiator is very much in the same mould, and sticks with the somewhat stereotypical portrayal of the Middle East - angry, bearded, masked men in the shadows, with generic Arabic music playing in the background.

However, where The Negotiator departs from the formula is by making Mason a diplomat rather than a spy - a flawed and troubled drunk rather than an ‘action-man’. His skill is trying to talk his way out of trouble rather than resorting to guns or fights, and this actually proves to create more tension in scenes where events are fraught, people are testy and opponents have itchy trigger fingers.

Hamm's performance makes us wonder why he doesn't get more leading roles. His Skiles is a man broken by his past, tired and traumatised, now unwillingly drawn back into the intrigues of the Middle East and trying to get the job done, but finding himself burdened by his own complex history and that of the U.S. Hamm plays it closer to the world-weary operatives of John le Carré than to a Tom Clancy superspy.

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Hamm in the leading role and Rosamund Pike as Sandy Crowder, Skiles’ CIA handler, make the most of a script which touches on the complexities of the Middle East while offering up political shenanigans and no shortage of action. They are supported by a fine cast including Larry Pine, Shea Whigham, Dean Norris, Jonny Coyne and Idir Chender.

Director Brad Anderson adeptly handles this story of American geopolitical self-interest, while constantly returning us to Mason's own personal struggle, who is as much a victim as a perpetrator. The treatment of this region, its people and the complex problems therein, might appear to be treated in a rather clichéd and perfunctory manner, but for Gilroy and Anderson this may be part of the point. Beirut has become another battlefield where various foreign powers fight to maintain control of a region largely because of its location and what it can offer them. Do any of them really care about the people there?

It’s unusual to see a movie that reminds us of the political thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s - a gritty film about political gamesmanship seems an anomaly amongst the comic-book, superhero and super-violent fantasy fare that takes over the summer multiplexes. I'd like to think that the grown-ups might go to the flicks to take a look at The Negotiator, a movie about diplomatic intrigue and geopolitics, but I suspect it won't be long before it lands on Netflix instead. At least be sure to catch it there.

The Negotiator is in UK cinemas and on VOD August 10th.



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