Ghosts of Beirut

Haunting Ghosts

Two timely dramatisations of espionage in the Middle East

On Television

Iran’s intervention in Lebanon in the early 1980s changed the power balance of that country and the wider Middle East forever. Iran first built up a Shia terror movement, Hezbollah. It now supports Hamas with substantial funds and training. The results are clear: Hamas’s recent mass slaughter in Israel showed unprecedented levels of sophisticated, long-term military planning.

All of which makes Ghosts of Beirut, now showing on Paramount+ and available via Amazon Prime, a highly topical as well as often enthralling series.

The Ghost in question is Imad Mughniyeh, once the world’s most wanted terrorist, hunted for decades by both the CIA and Mossad. Backed by Iran, Mughniyeh masterminded numerous deadly attacks, including the 1983 suicide bombings of the American embassy in Beirut and the US and French peacekeepers’ barracks, which killed hundreds.

Among the casualties was Robert Ames, the CIA Beirut station chief. His successor, William Buckley, was kidnapped and hideously tortured for months before dying of his injuries. Ghosts of Beirut moves between Lebanon and Syria in the early 1980s and 1990s to the late 2000s when the White House orders a kill team, working with Mossad, to assassinate Mughniyeh.

Filmed on location in Morocco, the series was created by Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz, the creative partnership behind Fauda, the nail-biting Israeli drama about undercover Israeli operatives on the West Bank and in Gaza. The pair’s insider knowledge of the shadow world of espionage and terrorism brings a familiar and welcome authenticity.

“Imad was the worst terrorist in the world. He was wanted for so many years and was in charge of killing so many Americans and Israelis and Lebanese,” Raz told the New York Post. “He was the guy who invented suicide bombing in the Middle East and you can see how he is doing it.”

Directed by the acclaimed American filmmaker Greg Barker, Ghosts of Beirut is more sophisticated than Fauda. There is less wham-bam action and, although at times choppy, the series is confident enough to frame a complex political, religious and diplomatic conflict with multiple protagonists and storylines.

Much of the drama unfolds through the eyes of Mughniyeh himself, skilfully played by Amir Khoury as the younger man, with Fauda veteran Hisham Suliman as the older Mughniyeh. The Saudi actress Dina Shihabi delivers a bravura, convincing performance as Lena Asayran, a young CIA operative who first connects an attack in 2007 on US forces in Iraq with Mughniyeh.

Tasked with interrogating a high-level Iranian defector, she steadily teases out Mughniyeh’s story. Mughniyeh is a mass killer, but we also see his human and domestic side, as both a family man and lothario, which adds an extra dimension.
He marries his childhood sweetheart and they have children but she eventually wearies of his lifestyle. On a trip to Damascus, Mughniyeh falls in love with a Syrian businesswoman and eventually leaves his wife for her.

Ghosts of Beirut is an intelligent, sometimes nail-bitingly tense thriller

I have a couple of gripes. Mughniyeh’s terrorist career was launched on the back of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Israel’s substantial role in the fracturing of the already fragile Lebanese state, which gave Iran room to create Hezbollah, receives little attention.

Several episodes are punctuated with interviews with insider experts such as former CIA officials and veteran American journalist David Ignatius. On one level they add value as a reminder of the factual backdrop, but the procession of talking heads interrupts the dramatic tension.

Overall though, Ghosts of Beirut is an intelligent, sometimes nail-bitingly tense thriller. It mixes facts with smart dramatic licence to tell a tale which, as the mass slaughter in Israel of 7 October shows, is more resonant and haunting than ever.

The international spy thriller series Special Ops: Lioness, also showing on Paramount+, moves across much more luxurious locations, including the Hamptons, the Gulf and southern Spain. Laysla De Oliveira plays Cruz, a US Marine who is part of an elite unit monitoring and infiltrating the financiers behind global terror networks. Her task is to befriend Aaliyah, the key money-man’s daughter, so he can be located and terminated.

Zoe Saldana plays Joe, Cruz’s commander, while she reports to Kaitlyn — a strangely wooden Nicole Kidman. There’s a decent amount of action, especially in the early episodes as Cruz goes through her sometimes brutal training. But the most intriguing storyline is the growing friendship between Cruz, who has no friends or family, and Aaliyah, subtly and sympathetically played by Stephanie Nur.

The two women slowly begin to bond as Aaliyah, who is being set up for an arranged marriage against her will, reveals the depth of her loneliness and misery. She has every luxury anyone could ever want, but her life is empty and bereft of love — until Cruz comes along. Complications soon ensue, as the two women’s feelings for each other move onto a new, and definitely forbidden, level.

However, this lioness is not always quite sure where she’s prowling. The first and last episodes are gripping viewing — especially when Cruz finally locates and reaches her prey. But too many of those in between focus on Joe’s non-stop domestic crises with her husband and errant teenage daughter.

Convincing characters do need a backstory and to be rounded. But sometimes a choice needs to be made about the kind of story being told and the series’s dramatic engine: soap opera or spy thriller?

Still, the second wins, just, and the series has much more potential. I am looking forward to hearing the lionesses roar again

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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