Saturday, December 29, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

[SPOILER ALERT: I won't blow anything fictional that happens in this movie, but I may "spoil" some actual world history in the course of this review. If you don't know shit about Afghanistan in the '80s and plan to see this movie, better not read any further.]

It's easier, I suppose, to appreciate the simple pleasures of film-viewing if the films themselves are placed into a vacuum, one where nothing has any meaning in the real world. To pretend, in other words, that it's all just some crazy fictional shit some writer concocted that was then put to film, that none of these individuals involved in the process of putting this movie together had any agenda or bias aside from making the most entertaining crazy fictional shit possible and that films cease to have any influence on their viewers the moment the reel actually stops unspooling.

As you can probably guess, I don't see this as the case. To me, an individual film comes into being in the midst of a grand conversation - not only with other films, but with other arts, with politics, with culture. It's not just ignorant and superficial but ridiculous to view a collaborative artistic project that can take years to create purely on its own terms, removed from any and all context.

So how to write about the strange and idiosyncratic Charlie Wilson's War, a well-made but highly (to my mind) misleading political satire about important events in recent American history? I'm not sure I agree with its perspective. Like...AT ALL. It's hard to translate that kind of position into a traditional "thumbs up" or a star ranking...But I can say, as a piece of entertainment, it's pretty damn solid. As a history lesson/commentary, it could be a lot better.

Charlie Wilson's War tells the true story of the U.S. response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980's. The real Charlie Wilson, a skirt-chasing, alcoholic Texas Congressman, used his position on the House's Defense Appropriations subcommittee to initiate the largest-ever covert CIA operation, funneling billions of dollars in weaponry to Afghan rebels (Mujahideen) fighting the Soviets.

This is a pretty incredible story and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin succeeds in not only making complicated political machinations relatively straight-forward and even sporadically funny. He's done this largely by writing clever dialogue, full of television-style set-ups, punchlines and quips, but not to an irritating, "Studio 60" degree.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman nearly steals the entire film (for what must be the fifteenth time this year) as Gust Avrakotos, the hot-tempered CIA know-it-all who helps Wilson arrange and understand his elaborate project. Hoffman's really the audience's way into the film - he looks at the cocksure and utterly corrupted Wilson with the mix of appreciation and bewilderment I sense we're meant to feel.

Wilson's not just sleazy but defiantly sleazy, openly referring to his beautiful assistants as "jailbait" and explaining away his relationships to drug dealers by noting that they were introduced by a Playboy covergirl. Tom Hanks gets some laughs in the part, though he's a bit mistcast. And not only because he has some accent trouble and whenever I see him play drunk, I'm reminded of his Dean Martin impression.

The one defining Wilson trait seems to be a preternatural ability to cozy up to all manner of people and feign sincerity in order to win them over. Hanks' charm is a bit too genial and open - we believe other people would like him, but I'm not sure we ever see him use this charisma to his advantage. In fact, the few times during the film that Wilson is actually left to his own devices, such as a tense meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan and his advisers, he falters and ends up embarrassing himself.

Director Mike Nichols brings a veteran's touch to the film - it's very tight and professional, but doesn't really show off or call attention to its own style. Nothing about the film feels all that ambitious, really, and the entire production is disarmingly slight considering the massive award campaign behind it and the uber-stars on its poster. It's reminiscent of Wag the Dog in some ways, another small, unassuming political comedy that arrived with a big cast and epic hype.

As political satire, however, Charlie Wilson's War falls short. Very short. As in, I can't even tell who or what is actually being satirized. I think it's supposed to be Wilson himself, who could be taken as a representation of American foreign policy. He's self-involved and reckless, acting emotionally without really considering the consequences. Wilson's convinced we need to help the Afghan people because he's hot for a woman lobbying on their behalf. After visiting a refugee camp and seeing the brutality of the Soviet Army, he starts sending them weapons without considering what will happen if the Afghans actually use them.

The end of the film finds Wilson successful, but it's a meaningless victory. (Hey, it's not a Spoiler if it actually happened decades ago.) The CIA helps the Afghans expel the Soviets and then leaves them totally to their own devices. The film ends with Avrakotos grimly warning Wilson about what's happening in the country they just "saved" from Communism. "The crazies," he intones, are amassing in Kandahar. (This foreshadows, of course, the rise of the Taliban, the group of crazies that we ended up removing from power in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. Will most Americans make this connection? Does it even count as satire if it's too vague for a significant portion of the potential audience to catch?)

It almost feels as if Sorkin and Nichols want to confront the harsh reality that Wilson and the CIA, in not thinking about the consequences of their actions, maybe have indirectly led to the growth of Al Qaeda, the use of Afghanistan as a training base for terrorists, and thus, the 9/11 attacks. My point is, if they are trying to say that - and it seems to me that, in fact, they are - this needs to be much more direct.

This version of Charlie Wilson is not really an apt metaphor for America, if we're being 100% honest. Because Tom Hanks' Charlie Wilson is a genuinely good, well-intentioned, heroic guy. The film opens and closes with him being awarded a medal. Granted, the scene is kind of ironic and even snarky. (The movie opens with the line, "Greetings, members of the Clandestine Community.") But I'm not sure that's really an excuse to advance the myth of American exceptionalism as this film does so repeatedly and fervently. "Hey, mistakes were made, it didn't all work out as we'd hoped, but America is still the greatest country in the world! Am I right or am I right or am I right?"

It's just kind of wrong to celebrate covert CIA wars in a lightly comical fashion, and I'm not sure the film is clear enough about where it stands to avoid confusion on this matter. It's far too close to a celebration of American intervention overseas, a restatement of the Big Lie, the lie that's actually repeated by a Congressman (played by Ned Beatty) during the film: that America is always on the side of good in whatever it does, all over the world.

If we are to see Wilson as the embodiment of American faults, he needs to seem more reckless and dangerous. The real Charlie Wilson got into lots of trouble that the film glosses over, including some drunk driving accidents, that might have actually made the film work better as a satire. But I guess you can't make your Tom Hanks protagonist too unlikable, even if he is based on a real guy and representative of the decadent, self-aggrandizing American spirit.

The Julia Roberts character - wealthy and powerful Republican whackjob Joanne Herring - perfectly exemplifies my issues with the film. This woman is probably evil, and definitely misguided in her approach to foreign affairs, and yet the film depicts her like Queen fucking Elizabeth. Beautiful, brilliant, glamorous, passionate and adored. Maybe I'm just prejudiced against warmongering Republican Texas millionaires, but the way this character is fawned over and considered above reproach, acting solely out of compassion for Afghan refugees, struck me as entirely ludicrous. Melissa Roddy in AlterNet compares it to "tell[ing] the story of World War II and pretend[ing] that, because the United States might have given a box of guns to the French Underground, there was no Holocaust." I might not go that far, but I get what she's talking about...This feels like a whimsical fantasy at times, not a comedy based on real events.

I'm not going to settle these questions in a blog review, but this is what I was thinking about while exiting Charlie Wilson's War. Do filmmakers take on a responsibility when making films about recent history? Or is it appropriate to just take significant events from a relatively short time ago and render them unrecognizable for the sake of comedy?

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