Political thrillers are always a tricky sell. The viewer is often thrown into a different country, with a different history, different rules – all key to comprehending the world in which the story has to cut through. If we don’t know the context already, the script is obliged to weigh itself down with a character obliged to explain everything with clear language and visual metaphors. In The Negotiator these shoes are filled by Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), an American foreign diplomat, in a complicated tale of espionage within the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
The film starts in 1972 with a drinks-do at Skiles’s Beirut apartment. He’s a nice, formidable host – even taking on a 13-year-old Lebanese boy, Karim, as his ward. But the party is suddenly invaded by masked-men with machine-guns, followers of Karim’s terrorist brother. They abduct the teenager, and Skiles’s wife is killed in the process. Fast forward ten years and the diplomat is working as a local mediator in Boston, where he is asked back to Beirut to deliver a lecture. Knowing this is not the real reason, he is persuaded to jump on the first plane there.
There are some explosive and intelligent thrills at the start, resembling some of the political thrillers by Spielberg and Hitchcock with some John le Carré thrown in. Skiles is an attractive character to follow, coming across as an alcoholic detective from a hard-boiled noir story, and explains the political situation just enough for the audience to understand what’s going on.
But the film doesn’t have nearly enough fun. Tony Gilroy’s script has glimpses of excellence – the dialogue is strong and snappy, despite the burden of political expositions, and hearing Skiles talk, persuade and negotiate is exciting. But the negotiations themselves between agents, politicians and terrorists are rather pale compared to scripts with a similar motivation. These scenes are not as juicy as those written by Aaron Sorkin or Vince Gilligan, where negotiation is an artform. Here, Skiles’s rhetoric isn’t so persuasive – we’re told he’s a good negotiator, but we don’t see much of it.
Gilroy puts politics above fun – with all the conspiracies, deceptions and corrupt characters lazily swept to the background. The Negotiator is a reasonable movie, but not one the viewers will rush and watch again.
The Negotiator is released nationwide on 10th August 2018.
Watch the trailer for The Negotiator here: