Powerful International Thrillers from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Beirut.
Danger is Everywhere
Written by Peter Bowen
In writing the screenplay for Beirut, Tony Gilroy wanted to recreate the shifting geopolitical alliances and shadowy circumspection found in John le Carré's spy novels. In the film, former diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) returns to the Middle East to help negotiate the release of a kidnapped friend. In Beirut in 1982, Skiles finds a country torn asunder by a civil war within and by the various international agents—including military groups from Syria, Iran, Israel, Russia, the PLO, and the United States—all attempting to gain control. Skiles must deal not only with Lebanon's confusing and dangerous political landscape, but also with the tragic ghosts of his past life there. "I was interested in writing about people trapped inside a political situation," Gilroy explains. In bringing the film to the screen, director Brad Anderson looked to classic international thrillers, like The Year of Living Dangerously, as well as le Carré's spy drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As with them, Beirut finds the personal mirrored in the political, locating, as Anderson puts it, a "damaged soul in a damaged city." As Beirut opens in theaters, we highlight the great cinematic tradition that inspired the film's propulsive storyline.
The Year of Living Dangerously | Reports from Edge
It's no wonder Peter Weir's 1982 hit The Year of Living Dangerously came to mind when the filmmakers started production on Beirut. For Anderson, like Beirut, "it's also an emotional journey about characters in this war-torn part of the world who are trying to find some goodness or something hopeful that they can hang onto." The film chronicles the intersecting lives of an Australian reporter (Mel Gibson) new to Jakarta, a well-connected photographer (Linda Hunt) who shows him the ropes, and a British embassy official (Sigourney Weaver) with whom he falls in love, all set against the last days of Indonesia's repressive Sukarno regime. Ironically, a film about a tumultuous political uprising found itself embroiled in controversies during production. Indonesia––now ruled by General Suharto, whose coup against Sukarno is alluded to at the film's end––refused to allow the film to be shot there (The final film was banned until 1999). Commending the film's ability to capture a moment in history, Roger Ebert wrote, "We really share the feeling of living in that place, at that time." For her performance as Billy Kwan, Linda Hunt won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | The enemy is within
When John le Carré published his masterwork Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1974, its unsentimental take on the convoluted conspiracies and petty politics of Cold War espionage changed the face of spy literature. In 2011, Tomas Alfredson brought le Carré's tale to the screen with Gary Oldman playing George Smiley, the inscrutable master spy tasked with ferreting out a mole operating at the very center of British intelligence. Without losing any of the novel's claustrophobic paranoia, Alfredson's adaptation recognized the fate of people caught up in the period's politics. "It's much more about the victims of the Cold War and the sacrifices they made," Alfredson told The Atlantic Magazine. Moving from London to Budapest to Istanbul and back, the film maps out the contours of the Cold War, while also chronicling its personal injuries–Smiley's disastrous marriage, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) forced to abandon his lover, and the tragic romance of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). As in the best international thrillers, the background and foreground begin to blur as the personal and political become hopelessly intertwined. As A.V. Club's Keith Phipps astutely points out, the film's "backdrop of overcast skies, gray institutional buildings, and anonymous apartment buildings" poetically illustrate how "the Cold War had drained the light and beauty" from Britain's famously emerald isle.
The Debt | The inheritance of conflict
When producer Eduardo Rossoff saw the 2007 Israeli espionage drama Ha-Hov, he realized that this smart thriller about Mossad agents forced to confront a 30-year-old secret would make a great English-language remake. Working from an initial script by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, director John Madden and screenwriter Peter Straughan ratcheted up the suspense, turning this small spy caper into an international thriller. Producer Kris Thykier saw it as "a return to the 1970s thrillers that I had grown up on, like Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man," compelling stories about individuals caught up in geo-political agendas beyond their control. Moving back and forth between two time periods thirty years apart, an older Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) remembers the fateful mission that changed the life of her younger self (played by Jessica Chastain). Going undercover in East Berlin, the young Singer and her team members (Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington) attempt to bring a Nazi war criminal known as the "Surgeon of Birkenau" (Jesper Christensen) to justice. An older Singer now must deal with the secret of what really happened some three decades before. Played out on a global stage, The Debt comes back to the characters having to confront their own personal demons. For Time Out's Anna Smith, the film "tackles themes of humanity, revenge, and truth so successfully it's hard not to find it powerful."
Eye in the Sky | Nowhere to hide
Originally penned by Guy Hibbert in 2008, Eye in the Sky and its story about the consequences of drone warfare began to feel almost prophetic by the time it was green-lit in 2013. "In July of that year, President Obama admitted for the first time that the U.S. had also killed civilians in drone attacks around the world," remembers producer Ged Doherty. Directed by Gavin Hood, Eye in the Sky illuminates warfare's brave new world by dramatically depicting how international conflicts are now simultaneously monitored and run by military forces situated around the globe. In Nairobi, Kenya, a British intelligence agent is murdered by Al-Shabaab. In London, UK Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) seeks to bring the terrorists responsible to justice. And in the Nevada desert, US Air Force pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) flies the surveillance drone that keeps an eye on the events in Africa. While classically suspenseful, the film's exhilarating portrayal of an omnipresent war technology, with people across the globe conducting an operation happening in real-time in Africa, feels shockingly new. The film captures, as NPR points out, "things that could happen, and technology that really exists, in places that haven't quite caught up to the deadly implications. Those places would include, well, everywhere on Earth."
A Most Wanted Man | An unending war
Anton Corbijn's adaptation of John le Carré's A Most Wanted Man spotlights the difficult fate of a Cold War warrior in the bewildering post-9/11 world. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a slovenly, chain-smoking German intelligence agent who, from his roost in Hamburg, recruits informants to spy on possible Islamic terrorists. When a Chechen refugee enters Germany illegally, Bachmann attempts to turn him for his cause. But it becomes clear that his old-school tactics of recruitment and intelligence gathering have no place in this new world supervised by American intelligence. While filming, Corbijn felt an uncanny resonance between the story he was telling and the news that was breaking. "The period that we filmed was late 2012, and then after that came the Boston bombing, a guy from Chechnya," notes Corbijn. "And then you had the NSA revelations about spying on Merkel and Germany." For The Mirror, the film "is perhaps the best so far to tackle the War on Terror, thanks to an ingeniously twisty, and deeply cynical, storyline plus a towering performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman."