The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 31, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Charlie Wilson's War

Full review behind the jump

Charlie Wilson’s War

: Mike Nichols
: Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile
: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
: Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Om Puri, Ned Beatty, Ken Stott

Aaron Sorkin already knows what a strain it can be to dramatize the paper-pushing and horse-trading of politics, in his gilded TV drama
The West Wing he had fictional President Jeb Bartlett quote sociologist Max Weber’s definition of it as “the slow boring of hard boards”. When politics are so subject to the bafflingly unsteady pulse of the electorate, and so opaque when it comes to connecting an action to a tangible result in the lives of the governed, political drama is too-easily subject to dues ex machina nudges in the direction of plot expediency. You can sure claim that such-and-such bit of canny glad-handing caused that bit of good or ill over yonder, but how do you sell it to the audience?

Sorkin is talented enough at this to know that the trick is to elevate the people involved, and let their passion for the system, and the play of their personalities, clear the road for all the legislative wonkery. This makes him the obvious choice to adapt
Charlie Wilson’s War, the unlikely-but-true story of a playboy Texas Congressman who, with charm, savvy, and a few budget shenanigans, secretly orchestrated the arming of Afghan rebels in the 1980’s, so they could drive the Soviets out of their country, crippling their feared army and hastening the end of the Cold War. And many of the Sorkin trademarks are here – that peppy stop-and-hit-reset dialogue, those counter-melodic theatrical scenes that so satisfyingly click two seemingly unrelated ideas together in an instant, and his personal favorite theme: the brilliant underachiever and the daffy broad who demands greatness of him.

So why does
Charlie Wilson’s War, with a Sorkin script, with the still-puckish Mike Nichols behind the camera, with Tom Hanks attempting the star power equivalent of Total Harmonic Resonance with Julia Roberts in front of it, and with always-exciting talents like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams on drums and bass, somehow fail to pop? It shifts in and out of excellence like a microscope with a loose knob.

I wonder if it starts with Hanks. America’s Most Decent Actor is certainly an unexpected choice to play the Lufkin, Texas Representative known as “Good Time Charlie”, with his fondness for whiskey and women in hot tubs. Every so often Hanks puts this disarming little-boy expression on his face that says “I’m sorry I’m such a rascal, but what are you going to do?” And I rather like that, but his randy side looks more like camouflage than truly-committed licentiousness. Since a running subplot of the picture involves Wilson being named in an investigation into drug use (the prosecutor is some up-and-comer named Giuliani), this rare weak spot in his performance hobbles Sorkin’s attempt to do what I described above and sweeten the politics with personality. Then the subplot itself goes fizzling away, an abandoned dud.

What the picture does do very expertly is track how Wilson, with an advantageous combination of committee seats, and an understanding that his job is to give people what will make them happy, was able to push a few dollars at the Pentagon around and conjure up a secret war, with the help of a philanthropic Texas socialite (Roberts), an abrasive CIA agent (Hoffman), and an office of buxom assistants known, naturally, as “Charlie’s Angels”.

The socialite, ultra-conservative Joanne Herring, has the money to think she can change the world, and the free time to try. She also has a certain tendency to bring the Bible into her pleadings, which is one of two blatant places where Sorkin slots in his most beaten-to-death hobby horse about Christians with theocratic impulses. The movie leaves off-screen the most pivotal thing the real Herring did, which was to slip, coiffed hair and country club clothes included, into occupied Afghanistan with a film crew to document Soviet atrocities. Showing such zealous moxie rather than simply alluding to it might have made it more obvious why a star of Roberts’ stature is hanging around in this movie.

As it is, Wilson has a seemingly-more proactive partner in the CIA agent, Gust Avarkotos, who asserts that he must be good at what he does, because he’s too much of a coarse hothead to have ever been promoted for butt-kissing. Hoffman carries himself like a beat cop who measures everyone the same, no matter what their status, and expects to be lied to, but gets angry about it anyway. I like his explosive temper, and the way he leans back from the table and squints at important people, determined to demonstrate how unimpressed he is. It’s Avarkotos who helps formulate the nuts-and-bolts strategy – what weapons the Afghan rebels need to shoot down Soviet helicopters, and how the US could provide such weapons without it being too obvious where they’re coming from. This will involve getting recalcitrant Senators, paranoid Israelis, and xenophobic Pakistanis to cooperate and take action for a country that doesn’t look, at first glance, to be at the front line of anything. And it’s up to Charlie and his grin to make this all fit together.

The story itself is nothing short of amazing, how in the midst of a hardening bureaucracy full of reasons to take no action, these determined people, with seat-of-their-pants bravado, and the properly-timed use of a belly-dancer, effectively cancelled World War III and turned it into a no-show victory for our side. Anyone who hears that story is bound to think “that would make a hell of a movie.Charlie Wilson’s War gets the names, dates, and places right, and provides charm and a couple of crackerjack scenes – one with a bottle of Scotch is Sorkin at his multi-tasking best. But the inglorious truth about politics is that even the politicians trying to do good in the world are usually in bland offices, far from the action. This movie has a charismatic hero in that bland office, but it sure leaves me feeling like I’m not getting the whole picture.


  • Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are a classic combination... Charlie Wilson's War made me feel a little better about U.S. foreign intervention, it seemed to work out that time

    By Anonymous patrick, at 9:54 AM  

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