In the new action film “Beirut,” “Mad Men” alum Jon Hamm plays a former diplomat who swoops into the war-torn city in 1982 to work with the CIA to negotiate the release of a friend who has been captured by Palestinians. The film, which also stars Rosamund Pike and Dean Norris, arrives in theaters on Wednesday, days before the 43rd anniversary of the start of Lebanon’s civil war, which killed nearly 200,000 people. It is a fictional story set in a real-life war that casts a dark shadow over Lebanon to this day.
The trailer was met with calls from many in the Lebanese community, in the U.S and in Lebanon, to boycott the film because it perpetuates racist stereotypes of Arabs and misrepresents the city of Beirut. The two-minute cut of the film raised concerns that “Beirut” would lack the nuances of a deeply complex civil war and fail to accurately represent the people who lived through it.
Those calling for a boycott were right to be concerned. Despite the title, plot and historical context, “Beirut” was not filmed in Beirut but in Morocco. The production was staffed by Moroccan makeup artists and crew members, and it cast Moroccan actors to play Palestinian terrorists. When asked if any of the crew on set were Lebanese or Palestinian, the film’s writer told HuffPost he would guess “almost none.”
This detracts from the authenticity of the film and represents a lost opportunity for Lebanese and Palestinian people to work on a project that profits off their stories. The voices of the actual individuals who lived through these events could have shaped the film to at least have some connection to the period.
Hamm and “Beirut” writer Tony Gilroy have defended the choice to film in Morocco by citing logistical challenges: insurance problems, time crunches and the fact that glitzy modern-day Beirut looks nothing like war-torn 1980s Beirut. But Morocco doesn’t look like 1982 Beirut. The film’s setting was entirely devoid of the color of Beirut’s streets, even during the war, and it offered barren destruction in its place.
Then there’s the question of how the movie depicts Arabs. The trailer includes several moments that offended the Lebanese community, who fear “Beirut” stereotypes Arabs as barbaric and bloodthirsty. “Two thousand years of revenge, vendetta, murder... welcome to Beirut,” says Hamm, whose white American hero is placed in the center of a complex battle between U.S. and Israeli interests in a ravaged city. Every Arab depicted in the film held a gun, with very little effort to humanize anyone other than Hamm’s character.
“The Lebanese community fears that 'Beirut' perpetuates media stereotypes of Arabs and barbaric and bloodthirsty.”
In a phone conversation with HuffPost, a spokesman for the Lebanese Embassy in the United States pointed out several inaccuracies in the trailer, including the airport set that looks more like a corner store than an arrivals terminal and the scenes of small children running around pointing guns at cars.
Lebanese Ambassador to the U.S. Gabriel Issa’s office said that, outside of its title, the film has little do with Beirut.
“Ambassador Issa is for the total freedom of the media and expression; however, he states that the movie trailer does not relate to the reality of Beirut or Lebanon and nothing in it depicts the history or cultural richness of Beirut and Lebanon,” the Lebanese Embassy told HuffPost in a statement. “In short, it is a total misrepresentation of our country.”
Hamm responded to the Lebanese community’s criticisms by telling The Canadian Press that those critics don’t understand the “practicalities of moviemaking.” Gilroy told HuffPost in an interview in February that he was surprised by the backlash, though he that could see why lines in the trailer could be perceived harshly out of context of the full film.
Gilroy insisted that the story of “Beirut” is much more complex than the trailer suggests and that it truly isn’t a story of Lebanon. He wanted those calling for its boycott to see the film in its entirety before rushing to condemn it. He originally wrote “Beirut” in 1991, after meeting a former CIA analyst on the set of another film, and said he put over a year into researching the war to write the script. He was especially careful, he said, to ensure that his fictional character was placed “in the most realistic context that we possibly can.”
I have seen the movie in its entirety. “Beirut” and its representation of Lebanon, without any Lebanese or Palestinian voices on set, was about as realistic as the fictional land of Agrabah.
“The movie's version of Beirut was about as realistic as the fictional land of Agrabah.”
My family is part of the estimated 13 million Lebanese diaspora population worldwide. My mother’s family fled to New York about a year after the war broke out. My father stayed in the war-torn country, his home, until 1987. The clearest voice in my head was my dad’s calm tone, after seeing the trailer, telling me that nothing in this “Beirut” belonged to our people at all.
I was 18 when he told me the stories behind the scars on his body, stories of birthdays spent sheltering from bombs and of growing up ready to shoot if a rival faction invaded his neighborhood. As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen his Lebanese pride turn into a lesson in healing. It’s enraging to hear a movie star condescendingly describe war survivors like my father as part of the “outrage machine.”
“Beirut,” as Gilroy told me, is completely agnostic on the history of the war. That’s the problem. The movie is named and set in the capital city of Lebanon, at the height of the most violent war in its modern history, but it doesn’t properly depict the players involved. The Lebanese criticism of the movie isn’t altogether about a culture of social media outrage, it’s the result of very real trauma. The film’s worst crime, perhaps, is how little the figures behind it seem to care about the voices of the people whom it appropriates.
Our community is an extremely proud one that takes any opportunity to tell outsiders of the wonder of Lebanon’s food, its people, its dialect. That pride is how we built a national scar tissue. We deserved better than “Beirut,” a film that profits off a country’s history without offering it any authenticity. The families who lived through that time may not understand all the practicalities of filmmaking, but they certainly understand their own story.
CORRECTION: This article previously stated the author’s father arrived in the U.S. in 1986. He arrived in 1987. Language in this story has also been amended to better describe the relationship Hamm’s character has to the CIA in the film.
Doha Madani is a breaking news reporter at HuffPost.