In certain circles, the 2007 drama “Michael Clayton” defines the high-water mark of American filmmaking in the early 21st century. It was the kind of taut, no-frills urban thriller that both harked back to the 1970s Golden Age of Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet and captured the specific political and corporate anxieties of its own time, playing down George Clooney’s movie-star persona to emphasize his chops as an actor and ensemble player.
In style, sophistication and subject matter, “Michael Clayton” has become something of a gold standard for movies made for mature, discerning audiences. Which is why its writer-director, Tony Gilroy, is an avatar for their survival within an industry that seems to grow more infantilized by the day. As a bellwether for the most endangered of cinematic species, Gilroy personifies the fortunes of and threats to filmmakers trying to transcend lowest common denominators with movies that aren’t based on comic books or video games, even as he makes his living fixing other people’s movies, most famously “Star Wars: Rogue One.” When a movie comes out bearing Gilroy’s imprimatur — whether as screenwriter, director or both — it announces that, for now at least, there’s still a place for the fragile entity known as the midrange adult-oriented drama within Hollywood’s Darwinian ecosystem.
Which is why it’s such good news that “Beirut,” a geopolitical thriller set amid the civil war in Lebanon in the early 1980s, is opening in theaters — or, indeed, opening at all.
“It’s shocking to me that this movie exists,” Gilroy said during a recent visit to Washington. He wrote “Beirut” in 1991, inspired by such real-life events as the abduction of CIA station chief William Buckley, as well as Palestinian assassin Abu Nidal’s oblique role in justifying Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The movie, which stars Jon Hamm as a former diplomat pulled back to the Middle East to negotiate the release of one of his colleagues, paints a picture of transactional ethics and triangulating cynicism on all sides, including the United States and its chief ally in the region.
“It was supposed to be Peter Weir and Mel Gibson, or Sydney Pollack and Michael Douglas, or John Frankenheimer and Bruce Willis,” Gilroy said of early attempts to get “Beirut” made. But “the politics were just annoying and irritable and made people afraid. To be really honest, criticizing Israel was really problematic at that moment. Everybody forgets, Andrew Young got fired by Jimmy Carter for meeting with the PLO.”
So, after an initial spate of interest, “Beirut” went back into Gilroy’s drawer. Until a few years ago, when producers Mike Weber and Ted Field looked at the success of “Argo” and thought the time could be right for another period thriller set in the Middle East. The film has already met with controversy: When the trailer first appeared, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee issued a call to boycott “Beirut” for its depiction of Arab characters and politics, among other things. But, Gilroy noted, “No one is challenging me in any of these conversations about the reality on the ground, or the political motivations or the aspirations of all the various antagonists.”
Although Gilroy believes politics were chiefly to blame for “Beirut” not getting produced, its life cycle coincides with the takeover of “branded IP” in the movie business, whereby studios will finance only movies with built-in audiences of fans of hit books, TV shows or other properties. Both “Beirut” and “Michael Clayton” — whose weary, beaten-down protagonists the screenwriter considers “cousins” — are adamantly original, emblematic of another kind of business model that has emerged as an alternative to the franchise blockbusters: awards films. “Clayton” was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one for Tilda Swinton’s supporting performance, and its early-fall rollout was helped by awards-season red carpet moments and the climactic Oscars ceremony itself.
“Beirut,” let the record reflect, is being released in the spring, meaning it will most likely be overlooked at awards time. And that’s just fine with Gilroy. “I think that the awards ghetto is just as corrosive as the tentpole-monster branded-IP business,” he said, thumping the table for emphasis. “I think what’s happened now, from people warping their careers, warping their choices, warping their schedules to chase awards and the release schedule that jams all this [stuff] into the fall, and the kinds of movies that people are making to try to chase that silly thing, I think it’s just as evil as the other thing.”
Informed of his status as canary-in-the-coal-mine for movies that simply aspire to be smart, well-crafted and entertaining, Gilroy looked skeptical. “I’m tryin’, man,” he said, adding, “It’s really hard for me to get things off, I gotta be honest with you.” One possibility for his next project is a seven-hour series, and that’s precisely what his fans are afraid of: losing the man who made “Michael Clayton” to Peak TV.
“But what are we losing?” Gilroy asked. He notes that his brother Dan, who wrote and directed the highly acclaimed drama “Nightcrawler” as well as last year’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” is doing his next project at Netflix. “No one else was offering them enough money to make the movie and Netflix said, ‘Here,’ ” Gilroy noted. “So they’re doing it, but it will never play in a theater.” Admitting that “it would bother me” if one of his films went straight to streaming, Gilroy invoked his father, the playwright Frank Gilroy. “I don’t want to be like my dad, [who] chased Broadway. ‘It only means something if I go to Broadway.’ And you’re like, ‘Why are you not working in repertory theaters all over the country, just doing what you love to do?’ I don’t want to be this cranky guy saying it was so much better way back when.”
So that leaves Gilroy, like so many in his profession, waiting for the phone to ring. Whether it’s on-screen or streaming, Gilroy is determined to stay in the game. “I’ve gotta do something this year, I’ve gotta get out of the house,” he said. “I’ve gotta stop writing and get into the chair, before it’s too late.”