The Negotiator at EIFF:

You may not think you’ve seen The Negotiator, but you have. This Beirut-based, Jon Hamm-vehicle recycles all the tropes of a standard 90s hostage thriller: an alcoholic ex-negotiator with a troubled past, a personal connection with the parties involved, and an America-saves-all attitude. It was, you won’t be surprised to know, written in 1991.

Hamm stars as Mason Skiles, a washed-up negotiator who used to be a high-rolling US official in 1970s Beirut. Following a terrorist attack in which his wife was killed and his adopted son abducted (his brother was the attacking terrorist), Skiles became a big-time alcoholic, resolving labour disputes for small money. 10 years later, post-civil-war, he’s mysteriously called back to ‘give a lecture’ at the American university, only to discover that the real reason behind his requesting was another job: an old friend has been kidnapped (the identity of the kidnapper will come as no surprise). Can Skiles reconcile his personal history, and the corruption at the US embassy, to see the negotiation through?

Of course he can, and that’s the problem. The Negotiator, previously titled Beirut, follows such generic plot points that we rarely feel any tension or doubt about the safety of our characters. Skiles is such a 90s caricature, his actions driven in the same way as every other 90s hostage thriller. The supporting roles are no better. If you’d given me the setup for the film, I could have predicted 70% of the narrative before it actually happened.

Likewise, the film plays a dangerous political game. It simplifies the situation in Lebanon as ‘Palestinians = terrorists (‘they want to burn down the Israeli house next door’ says Skiles); Israelis = land-grabbing war-mongers, only stopped by the United States; United States = moral peacekeepers, stopping the country from falling apart. This wasn’t – and isn’t – the case. America’s involvement in the Middle East has always been controversial, and steps like arming the Israeli military are outright ignored in favour of a typical, grating, ‘America saves the day’ narrative which rings completely false.

Visually and aurally, the film does itself no favours by featuring stock, royalty-free sounding ‘stereotypical middle eastern music’ and ‘standard tense car chase’ as its main soundtrack – giving The Negotiator little sense of identity. Björn Charpentier’s work behind the camera reveals little more than ‘generic Middle Eastern city in the midst of conflict’, and there are no artistic flourishes to escape the stock-image look of the piece. 

During the screening of The Negotiator I attended, the woman sat next to me fell asleep for around 30/40 minutes of the runtime. I doubt if she’d have much trouble writing a review. Brad Anderson’s movie is, by no means, awful; it’s just painfully standard. This is a 90s-esque negotiator movie that adds nothing more to the concept of 90s negotiator movies. It’s a mystery, because Anderson has shown himself to be more than capable of crafting something unique and satisfying – take Transsiberian as an example. I think it’d be better for everyone if we just forgot this one, or pretended it was made in 1991.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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