‘Ghosts of Beirut’ Review: A Great Thriller But a Poor History Doc
At a certain point in the final episode of Ghosts of Beirut, a character utters a powerful statement about the relationship between the Middle East and the United States: both territories “are the same” and they “feed on each other.” Even though this may not sound like a huge revelation, it says a lot about the approach of the Showtime series and how it reflects the current state of the world.
Ghosts of Beirut chronicles the decades-long search for Lebanese terrorist Imad Mughniyeh (Amir Khoury and Hisham Suliman), who managed to stay under the radar for several years while giving the CIA a long-lasting headache. Mugniyeh is also associated with the popularization of terrorist techniques such as suicide bombers and video recordings of political prisoners. The series is based on real-life research that still has classified sections to this day, and features first-hand accounts of the events that led to Mughniyeh’s findings.
Ask anyone about the conflict in the Middle East, and you’re bound to hear that it’s complicated. Yet it is not uncommon for occidental productions to jumble together people who live in the area and dehumanize them so that audiences don’t accidentally empathize with terrorists’ motivations. Ghosts of Beirut doesn’t fall into that trap. The series makes a clear distinction about the formation and development of terrorist cells and that this is an isolated group of extremists in Lebanon.
‘Ghosts of Beirut’ Recognizes the Implications of American Interference in the Middle East
Ghosts of Beirut isn’t scared to point the finger at the United States and question the motivations behind the American presence in such a distant territory. While this is done under the excuse of peacekeeping, we can’t ignore that the existence of foreign soldiers in Middle Eastern territory has a clear effect on the culture and everyday lives of locals. The series isn’t naive enough to suggest that terrorist groups are spawned out of pure evil and for no reason at all. Yet Ghosts of Beirut is reluctant to really hone in on how the United States is the enemy in many aspects given that the American army can be as cruel as the terrorist cells that they claim to be hunting. It’s easy to root for the CIA when the story is told from the perspective of field agents who are constantly on edge, sleep-deprived, and desperate to get their job done.
When it comes to this aspect, Ghosts of Beirut plays out like the excellent movie Zero Dark Thirty or a solid episode of Homeland. You can’t help but get involved with the agents’ lives, especially when you witness their frustration of chasing a true psychopath for years and not being able to find even a trace of him (hence his nickname, “The Ghost”). The series never fails to impress upon the viewer how dangerous the life of a CIA agent in the field is. One way that it does this is by taking a page out of The Hurt Locker and making every character expendable, regardless of how recognizable the actor playing them might be. The deeper you get into the story, the higher the stakes get, and you never feel like anyone is safe — which, of course, makes for excellent TV.
‘Ghost of Beirut’ Fails When Trying to Tell The Viewer How to Feel
At the same time, Ghosts of Beirut doesn’t seem to trust its own ability to convey how serious – and real – the story presented is. Throughout the episodes, the show sometimes takes a documentary approach to the narrative by showing real-life agents talking about the experience that is being dramatized in the series. The interviews have the clear purpose of validating the story, but they feel invasive and redundant, especially when, most of the time, the interviewees are explaining plot points that the series already made clear or are just commenting on emotions that the episodes already provoked.
This is especially problematic when you consider the fact that Lebanese, Israeli, or Kuwaiti individuals aren’t offered the same nuanced approach. We do see local characters who are caught in the crossfire between the CIA and terrorists, but they never make it past one dimension, the U.S. side is afforded a multi-layered approach that encourages viewers to worry about the characters’ destinies despite the questionable reasons for why they are in Beirut. A great example of this is Chet (Rafi Gavron), a character that goes through a brutal transformation in a short span, and yet you fully understand where he’s coming from, even though you may not support his behavior.
If viewed as a thriller story with an intricate plot and high stakes, Ghosts of Beirut is high-quality TV. However, its insistence on validating its own story – with every episode beginning with a title card that states that the series is based on true events and involved thorough research – suggests that it will be a nuanced approach, which is only true to some extent. When it comes to different characters’ points of view and how they are impacted, the series doesn’t differ much from what we’ve seen in terms of Lebanese, Iranian, and Arab representation in general. While there is a villain whose motivations we can comprehend, Ghosts of Beirut never dedicates time to truly explore how the American villains in the story play a huge part in creating the terrorists they work so passionately to eliminate.
Ghosts of Beirut premieres on Showtime on May 19.