Writer Tony Gilroy is no stranger to suspenseful espionage action, having penned the original Bourne trilogy, but his latest look at the world of spies, The Negotiator, actually has a lot more in common with his directorial debut, Michael Clayton, than those Matt Damon actioners. It’s tense but intellectual, just as willing to provide an excoriating analysis of American institutions as it is to deliver conventional thrills. This time around, Gilroy sets his sights on US foreign policy in 1982 Beirut, just before the Israeli invasion, painting a picture of short-sightedness and corruption, a bold and timely message that elevates The Negotiator above its rather typical genre trappings.
Guiding us through the chaos is mediator Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a former Lebanese embassy bigwig who swore to never return to the country after a terrorist attack took his wife and adopted son. However, his knowledge and contacts mean the CIA won’t take no for an answer when they need an expert to broker a deal with a PLO splinter group who have seized a valuable US asset. Skiles is a very likable hero, despite his alcoholism and penchant for gambling, and it’s always refreshing to see a thriller protagonist use his words to avoid bloodshed whenever possible.
Skiles is surrounded by people with murkier motivations, his handler Sandy (Rosamund Pike) clearly more than just the embassy attaché she claims to be and operation head Gaines (Dean Norris) seemingly entirely out for himself. Elsewhere, violently expansionist Israelis are pushing for all out war, aided by US Colonel Ruzak (Shea Wigham), and Gilroy’s unabashed criticism of both nations’ imperialism is bold and exciting. His script is consistently smart, whether in its politics or dense dialogue, and the unfussy style of director Brad Anderson suits the writing well. Anderson is allowed some flourishes, particularly in the claustrophobic climactic set-pieces where everything gets jumpier and more chaotic.
Skiles is a great role for Hamm, who brings some of the Don Draper wit and confidence, but buries the suaveness and calculated façade of control beneath a sheen of sweaty sleep deprivation and general frustration. Whilst it would be great to see Hamm properly break into big screen comedy – a Nice Guys-esque caper would suit him perfectly, for example – this talky, layered performance is one of his best on film. There may not be much to surprise you in the design, score, or plot of The Negotiator, but it’s still worth a look thanks to the intelligence and political clout of Gilroy’s script, combined with Hamm’s star power.