Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike Shine in Confusing Yet Satisfying 'Beirut'

Rosamund Pike, Jon Hamm and Dean Norris in "Beirut." (Bleecker Street)

Has anyone ever watched a Tony Gilroy movie and understood what was going on? We're not talking here about knowing generally, but rather, moment-by-moment, actually knowing what's happening, and why. Gilroy's art seems to be not about illuminating, but about persuading an audience to not mind obfuscation. And the odd thing is, most of the time he gets away with this. Most of the time we end up not really minding, or not minding much.

Such is the case with "Beirut," which he wrote and which he dominates, even though Brad Anderson ("The Machinist") directed. You may spend half the film feeling like there are four or five books you probably should have read before walking into the theater. The audience is made to be like a fly on the wall, only this time literally: Flies never know what's going on, either. Yet "Beirut" is always hurtling in a distinct direction, and by the time it's over, you'll feel like you've been somewhere.

That somewhere is Beirut, from back in the day when the word "Beirut" was practically a synonym for "horrible, dangerous place." (Sample early-1980s exchange: "How's Times Square these days?" "Forget it, it's like Beirut.") Jon Hamm plays a diplomat; and at the start of the film it's 1972, and he has the haircut to prove it -- just over the ears, accompanied by the obligatory long sideburns. He is hosting a party, and he has the breezy air of a man in control of his destiny. In fact, he has no idea what's about to hit him.

But to get back to the hair and the fashion, for a moment. It's a nice part of "Beirut" that care is taken to get the visual details right. Usually, only the lead actors will look in the appropriate period, while the supporting players and especially the extras will look like they just got pulled off the street. But "Beirut" captures 1970s exuberance and then jumps 10 years to the more classic 1980s: Thin lapels, thick tie knots, constructed shoulders. And none of the women have big hair, because big 1980s hair didn't happen until the middle of the decade.

The point is, somebody cared, and this matters, especially in a movie that's confusing in its story: At least the audience can feel grounded in time and place.

By 1982, the young, snappy diplomat -- Mason, played by Hamm -- is a middle-aged man who has been hitting the bottle, and the bottle has been hitting him back. The CIA recruits him to return to Beirut, supposedly to give a lecture at a university, but he's not stupid and knows something bigger is afoot. When he gets there, they tell him: His friend and former colleague has been kidnapped by terrorists, and the CIA wants him to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

That's all you need to know, because for a long while, that's all the audience knows, but there's a lot more going on than that. In the meantime, Hamm must deal with a contentious cast of characters. There's Rosamund Pike, as the woman sent to be his assistant, but more like his minder. There's Dean Norris, in a rather convincing toupee, as a CIA operative, and there's the always engaging Larry Pine as the American ambassador.

There are blown up streets and blown out buildings, and even a two-block walk is a calculated risk. But more than anything, there is an atmosphere of confusion, one which matches the confusion of the viewers. Everyone has a different angle and different interests: The PLO, the Israelis and the Christian militias, and even within the American government, there are hidden and conflicting motives.

In such a story, having a movie star at the center is essential, and Hamm is a movie star. He can be drunk and unshaven and look like he slept in his clothes, but we know just by looking at him that he's our guy, and all we have to do is care about him, and the movie will reveal itself. So this is a good movie for Hamm, and also for Pike who, in her recent films, has too often been either a madwoman or a victim of circumstance (and sometimes both). Here she gets to be active and think on her feet, and it makes a big difference.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. Email: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MickLaSalle

Beirut

Drama. Starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Directed by Brad Anderson. (R. 109 minutes.)

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