Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Movie-blogging resolution #1 for the new year: Don't go a month between postings. Aside from having at least a couple friends looking at it occasionally, I like to spout off about the subject and a bunch of things - holiday stuff, mainly - have kept me from having the time to sit down and knock out a full review in a day or two. That's slowed down and now I can get back to this.

Movie-blogging resolution #2 for the new year: Write the review, then do the star rating. It seems obvious, but I've tended to start by scribbling the basic information down on a pad or in a spreadsheet on my phone - name, theater, rating, how many reviews it has on HBS/EFC and the average rating - the idea being to prioritize films that have not yet been reviewed or where my opinion is sharply different from the ones there.

It's a bit of a trap, though - at a certain point I find myself writing to match the single number I decided on before getting a chance to flesh out my thoughts. So now I'm just keeping the last few weeks' worth of movie tickets in my wallet, writing about the ones that interest me the most when I've got an hour on the bus.

Charlie Wilson's War

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2007 at Regal Fenway #13 (first-run)

Writer Aaron Sorkin hasn't had a film credit since 1995's An American President, but he has been busy, with writing credits for nearly every episode of SportsNight, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and the first four years of The West Wing. From those series (and the trouble with cocaine that saw him removed from The West Wing), it's hardly surprising that he'd be drawn to Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Texas: He probably sees more than a little of himself in this man whose appetites are only exceeded by his love for his work.

As the film opens in 1980, Wilson (Tom Hanks) is deciding to make his work the liberation of Afghanistan from its Soviet invaders. He's in a good position to do it; he serves on the House Intelligence committee and because his wealthy district asks little more of him than defending the Second Amendment, more people owe him favors that vice versa. His sexual peccadilloes and constant drinking also disguise a mind that graduated from Annapolis and sees the importance of Afghanistan when few others do. Those others include Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a wealthy former beauty queen who can be even brasher than Charlie, and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an insubordinate CIA analyst.

History can be a dry subject when reduced to lists of names, numbers, and events - there's a section of the film that does just that, and even the visuals of planes, helicopters, and tanks blowing up can only do so much to keep screenfuls of statistic on how many planes, helicopters, and tanks were blown up during a given month interesting. What Sorkin, director Mike Nichols, and the cast tap into is the larger-than-life personalities of the people who are able to make history. Charlie, Joanne, and Gust are all arrogant and difficult to deal with in their own ways, but not so much so that they're unpleasant to watch. They're entertaining, characters who would be fun to watch in a fictional, lighter story. The first time Gust visits Charlie's office plays like a bedroom farce, as Charlie regularly shoos him from the room to check with his staff about his potential implication in an ethics scandal. But as much as the filmmakers work to make the story entertaining, they don't allow the form of a feature to overpower the feel of history. There's no standard-issue romantic subplot shoehorned in, no matter what the poster implies; various plot threads don't complement each other in a neatly parallel fashion. This is interesting material which Nichols and Sorkin trust to be interesting.

The cast does their part, mostly giving performances that seem effortless because they know how to take advantage of their movie-star status. Even Amy Adams, who arguably isn't a movie star - yet - has enough of a history of playing underappreciated girls-next-door that we get who and what Charlie's put-upon assistant Bonnie Bach is at first sight. Charlie Wilson is a scoundrel from the first time we see him, but in the back of our mind we know that someone played by Tom Hanks can't be all or even mostly bad. That just covers making sure the first impression isn't too far in one direction or the other, though; Hanks gives a stealthily fine performance the rest of the way, convincing the audience of Charlie's intelligence and passion while only showing occasional cracks in his easygoing exterior. Julia Roberts gives a character with relatively little screen time more stature than she might otherwise have while making her more likable than an heiress dabbling in international politics probably should be. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives Gust a dry wit to offset his pushiness.

The movie is all about gently showing us how things that run counter to our intuitive sense of how they should can wind up working out. It is, after all, about a secret war funded by the CIA and a Congressman who is gleefully amoral in his personal life - whose end result was arguably the brutal Taliban regime gaining power - stuff that would be the plot of a villainous conspiracy in many films. Here, Nichols and Sorkin present it as a valuable and necessary opportunity taken, and Charlie Wilson's excesses as basically harmless. There's a certain innocence to the film's corruption, in part because we don't see our main characters acting to benefit themselves and in part because we're given just enough look at the effects of not doing anything to convince us that something had to be done without feeling like we're being preached at too much. The film also has a nice way of showing us the nuts and bolts of how politics works and how secret deals are made without becoming too procedural.

Charlie Wilson's War is so slick that one can actually ignore just how slick it is - even the bits that pointedly don't seem Hollywood-perfect are flawless in how they avoid perfection. The film is a highly entertaining bit of history, which can be a bit jarring if you don't expect history to be entertaining.

Also at eFilmCritic (along with four other guys' opinions)

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