‘Beirut’ Trailer Was Supposed to Thrill. Instead It Offended.
Posted January 30, 2018 9:55 p.m. EST
A movie or TV show receives criticism for its portrayal of the Middle East. Its detractors say the story stereotypes and dehumanizes Arabs and Muslims — with some roles not even filled by actors of Middle Eastern descent.
Is it Showtime’s “Homeland”? Yes. The new “Aladdin” from Disney? Sure. The original “Aladdin” from Disney? That, too. Or remember “True Lies,” “G.I. Jane” and “Rules of Engagement”? Yes, yes and yes. What about the 2013 Oscar winner for best picture, Ben Affleck’s “Argo”? You bet.
Now, there is an addition to the list: a new movie starring Jon Hamm called “Beirut.” The film — a fictional hostage drama set during Lebanon’s civil war — had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and is set for a wide release in April. Yet its trailer alone, released this month, generated a backlash, especially across the Middle East.
The movie, written by Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” franchise) and directed by Brad Anderson (“Transsiberian”), tells the story of an American diplomat, played by Hamm, who is tasked by a CIA agent (Rosamund Pike) with rescuing a colleague kidnapped by the fictional Militia of Islamic Liberation. The trailer is replete with explosions, images of a war-torn city and a villainous gun-wielding kidnapper with an Arabic accent. It ends with a voice-over from Hamm’s character: “2,000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder. Welcome to Beirut.”
Almost immediately, the trailer — viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube — spurred a #BoycottBeirutMovie hashtag and scathing comments on social media. Complaints were manifold. For starters, none of the movie’s top-billed actors are Lebanese. Also, “Beirut” wasn’t visually familiar to residents of the rebuilt city. That’s because almost all of it was shot thousands of miles away in Morocco.
And then there’s the soundtrack.
Lynn Charafeddine, a Dubai-based editor of Lebanese descent, wrote in an email: “I still don’t understand why the Middle East is always filmed in sepia and why movie scorers use a weird ‘leily ya leily’ chant like that’s what all Arab music is.”
Gilroy — who wrote the initial script in 1991 before it was greenlit more than two decades later — said critics should wait to see “Beirut” before making judgments.
What seemed to bother viewers most was the trailer’s almost exclusive focus on Americans, signaling that the film might reduce Lebanon’s complicated, sectarian civil war to a flashy backdrop for Hamm. Some worried that Lebanese people would not only be bit players in their own history, but violent ones at that.
“There are so many stories to draw from the civil war,” Charafeddine said, but the filmmakers “chose to overlook all of that because they wanted to portray Lebanon in a certain light.”
Because foreign-film viewership is so low in the United States, Hollywood’s perspective of the Middle East is often the only one Americans see. For example, the Oscar-nominated Lebanese film “The Insult,” about a dispute between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee in Beirut, has taken in less than $150,000 domestically since being released this month, according to Box Office Mojo.
Habib Battah, a journalism lecturer at the American University of Beirut and a founder of BeirutReport.com, summed up his reaction to the “Beirut” trailer with one word: “Again?”
“This is what happens in almost every Hollywood movie about the Middle East," Battah said. “The Americans and the white folks are the victims. They’re being bombed. They’re being attacked. The Arabs, usually, for the most part, are the aggressors. They’re doing the bombing.”
Nasri Atallah, a Lebanese writer, said that he doesn’t want films to downplay the violence of Lebanon’s civil war. But from what he saw in the “Beirut” trailer, the plotline does not appear to make efforts to dissect the time’s political complexities — using a fictional militia, for example — nor does it show Lebanese people as fully formed characters.
“A lot of the reaction was, ‘Oh, we want to show a positive image of Lebanon,’ which I disagree with," Attallah said, adding, “We should show the bad things, but this didn’t seem like a sincere telling of those bad things.”
Gilroy said, “There’s nothing anti-Arab or cliché about the way we’re approaching many of the things in the film.”
Though he declined to specify the film’s cost, Gilroy cited a bare-bones budget that largely limited casting to actors available in Morocco. As to why the film was shot in that country, he said that it was more difficult to get insurance in Lebanon — which, he added, is now too polished for the movie’s gritty aesthetics.
“Lebanon today is so sleek and modern and so put together," Gilroy said. “It doesn’t provide the sort of skeleton that we need for an art department to create the kind of destruction that there was in 1982.”
Philippe Aractingi, a Lebanese director, agreed with Gilroy’s assessment that it is difficult to get insurance to shoot in the country. But he objects to Gilroy’s use of the name Beirut to signify danger in the American mind. “It is offensive and so stereotypical,” he added. “We’re already polluted by all the scars that we have. Maybe we were at war. But we are not at war anymore.”
Asked about the criticism of Hollywood’s portrayals of the Arab world, Gilroy said: “There’s good movies and bad movies. There are people that are careful about how they tell the stories and people that aren’t. I think there’s been some amazing films. I think ‘Syriana’ is a really interesting film.”
Gilroy volunteered an analogy to David Simon’s less-than-favorable depiction of New York during the 1970s in his HBO show “The Deuce.”
“I was there when it happened," Gilroy said. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s what happened then.”
Criticism of the trailer aside, many of the early reviews of the movie at Sundance were positive. The Hollywood Reporter said Gilroy’s script was “well-thought-out.” Variety called it a “satisfying suspenser.” The Guardian said “Beirut” was “quite good” but acknowledged “the people of Lebanon barely feature in the movie at all.”
Najib Mitri, a Lebanese blogger, said the movie shouldn’t be condemned by its trailer alone.
“It’s too early to judge because the movie is not even out yet,” he said, “even if everything suggests it’s just another forgettable, cliché movie.”