Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Aaron Sorkin's Return To Cinematic Enterprises: The Process Story Charlie Wilson's War Is Good.

The Good: Generally good acting/casting, Plot, Characters, Surprisingly good use of footage/effects, Presentation
The Bad: Clunky in parts, Feels short, Sense of time is skewed, Light on DVD bonus features.
The Basics: A good bet for anyone who loves political process stories this season, Charlie Wilson's War is a solid film that will entertain and inform!

On The West Wing," occasionally characters will mention what Leo McGarry once says early on: "There are two things you never want people to see how you make: laws and sausages." It seems strange, then, that writer Aaron Sorkin would follow his admirable television failure Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip with a screen adaptation of a process story. In Charlie Wilson's War, we are treated not to how laws are made but how influence is bought and sold and the dramatic influence of one lone Congressman.

From the first moment characters begin speaking in Charlie Wilson's War, this glows as one of the written works of Aaron Sorkin, whose dialogue is characterized by a fast paced back and forth usually on topics that are tangential to the main storyline. Between dazzling audiences with The West Wing and his more recent success, The Social Network (click here for that review), Sorkin wowed a smaller audience with Charlie Wilson's War. So when a flashback begins with Congressman Charlie Wilson sitting in a hot tub naked with three women and a man who are doing cocaine, being pitched a "Dallas in Washington television series idea," it feels immediately like pure Sorkin. Despite the esoteric mix of verbal humor and historic high drama that follows, much of Charlie Wilson's War does not have the Sorkin flavor to it and I am surprised (and delighted) to find I enjoyed it as much as I did with that being the case!

Charlie Wilson, six-term U.S. Congressman from the Texas 2nd Congressional District in 1980, through happenstance watches a report on the news on troops from Afghanistan resisting the Soviet Union's advance and military takeover of their country. Desperate to thwart communism, Wilson becomes curious about what would happen to the Soviet Union if Afghanistan could effectively resist and as he sits on the Congressional subcommittees involving financing the Defense Department and the CIA's covert budget, he is soon informed that he is the perfect man to arrange to adequately fund the operations needed to win a war with the Soviet Union through Afghanistan.

Pressured to take action by one of his chief campaign financiers, Joanne Herring, Wilson is introduced to CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos, the pointman on the Afghanistan project because his troubled tenure with the Agency has left him with nothing better to do. Suddenly in the hot seat, Gus (as Wilson calls him) introduces Wilson to weapons experts, strategists and becomes a vital part of Wilson's negotiations with leaders in Pakistan, Israel, and Egypt to secure enough weapons and a covert way to get them into Afghanistan to allow the Afghan people to begin shooting down the Soviet Union's armor-plated helicopters and turn the tide of battle against the Communist forces.

While Gust and Wilson are negotiating and arm-twisting politicians and world leaders, Joanne is raising funds to keep Wilson in his congressional seat. Wilson's past as a congressman of low moral character (he accepts a position on the Ethics committee purely to get the favor of being named to the board of the Kennedy Center so he can get free tickets to events there to take dates!) soon catches up with him and while he is working on arming a secret war, he is deeply involved with protecting his own reputation and surviving as a congressman!

I shall note here two very important things: 1. This is a review of the film Charlie Wilson's War. It is not a review of the book, not a commentary on the reality upon which it is based (which I am largely ignorant of) and therefore anything that might be included in the former and omitted from the latter is not my concern. This is a movie and while it references real events, it is being portrayed as a work of historical fiction as opposed to a documentary. Thus "characters" are the characters in the film and how they work as cinematic characters. 2. I am a known liberal and a pacifist (quite proudly). I am one who stands against the pseudo-patriotic flag-waving and drum beating that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States of America. And the best possible statement I can make about how well-written and how well-directed Charlie Wilson's War was is this: the moment an Afghan freedom fighter launches his first rocket and takes out a Soviet helicopter, I let out a small cheer (fortunately the theater was almost entirely empty, which is very sad on another level).

Charlie Wilson's War is very much ingrained with the process of political machinations that change the world. It's stunning to consider that Charlie Wilson is one of 435 congresspeople and that his focus on this single issue is mirrored by 434 other people on other issues. It's amazing the world isn't changed entirely by the machinations of congress, save that the idealists are often weeded out before elections and their ambitions are (sometimes fortunately!) kept in check by the Senate. This is completely relevant to an exploration of this film because of the whole plot involving Joanne.

Joanne is a woman who uses religion and money to influence politics and the true tragedy of the film comes in the very last scene before the return to the "present day" of the film. Joanne is portrayed throughout the film as a woman of wealth, influence and principle and she knows how to use money and the idea of morals to influence others with power. The failure that comes at the end of the movie, wherein $1,000,000 is denied to Charlie Wilson is well within the means of Joanne Herring. That private financiers like her did not step up when the government failed is disturbing and baffling.

In the context of the film, this is even more troubling than in reality, as Joanne is portrayed consistently as a woman who delights in using her influence and flexing her muscle. That the character delights in foiling the communists, but exhibits no responsibility in the aftermath undermines the good she does, which is the subtle commentary of the film, which is made not at all subtle in the end. Indeed, attentive viewers who are politically involved now will easily note that many of the names thrown around as potential allies who were armed by the United States are now people we have listed as enemies in our current wars.

Again, as someone who is not a September 11th rally fanatic, it speaks to the quality of the movie that when Gust and Charlie take a few minutes to contemplate what the effect of their machinations might be, the film stops with a shot squarely on Charlie's face and we hear a jet turbine that seems remarkably specific . . .

The characters in Charlie Wilson's War are surprisingly well fleshed out given that the film is only 97 minutes long! There are four essential characters (most would say only three, but . . .) who run the efforts to change the world through toppling the Soviet regime via Afghanistan: Bonnie, Joanne, Gust and Charlie.

Bonnie is Charlie's congressional aide, his right hand and his conscience. She is efficient, completely human and essential to keeping Charlie grounded. She heads a staff of congressional aides to the womanizing Charlie that look like Hollywood bombshells, yet are eminently qualified at their tasks as can be seen as they try to neutralize the investigation into Wilson's stripper friends. Bonnie is played by Amy Adams and she does quite well playing off the big three celebrities in the piece. As a nod to his work on The West Wing, Sorkin's inclusion of Bonnie continues the long tradition of incredibly useful and underpaid assistants to those in power.

Joanne is a fiercely independent woman who has connections on Capitol Hill that are so extensive that she knows within hours about changes to the covert budgets. She is a personal friend of Pakistan's President Zia and she knows the soft points of all the people in power, how to exploit what they believe for her desired goals. She loathes communism (possibly because of her own fabulous wealth) and works to keep money flowing into politicians she likes, leaving them indebted to her. As well, she has a soft side, specifically for Charlie. In tender moments, away from the politics, she is characterized as a woman who has wounds she struggles to hide and a flirtatious nature that makes her a natural match for Charlie.

Gust is easily the most enjoyable character in the film, beginning his tenure in the piece with yelling at his boss in a way many of us wish we could. He is cranky, acerbic and incredibly intelligent. What he lacks in social skills, he more than makes up for in usefulness and he carries a somewhat sad quality to him as well.

And then there is Charlie. Charlie Wilson is initially characterized as an inconsequential Representative whose only care in the world is drinking, having a good time with strippers and admiring the female form. Sure, he takes his meaningless votes seriously, as he takes his constitutional separation of powers and protections of freedoms seriously (all of this is illustrated early on in the film) and when his lack of issue statements allows him to build up a voting record that has helped many people, Charlie becomes uniquely able to call in favors to change the world through the plan he and Gus execute!

Tom Hanks is good as Charlie Wilson. Actually, he suffers from "Carrey's Frewer Riddler Syndrome," as I call it. In Batman Forever, arguably a vehicle that was cashing in on Jim Carrey's tremendous celebrity at the time, Jim Carrey portrays Matthew Frewer playing the Riddler. Anyone familiar with Frewer's works will instantly catch that Jim Carrey is doing a spot on interpretation of Frewer. The movie could have saved some money and gone with the less famous actor and had the same effect. Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson is playing Christopher Rich playing Charlie Wilson. Indeed, Hanks plays Wilson almost identical to the way Rich played Senator Jefferson on the episode of The Lone Gunmen he played in! So, this somewhat understated, good-natured, possibly a little dim role may be a stretch for Hanks, but he plays it just like Christopher Rich. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

What Hanks does very well is play off Julia Roberts, who portrays Joanne. The best I can say about Roberts here is that she plays Joanne as understated as possible given the role is flashy by nature. I am not, traditionally, a fan of Julia Roberts as she often plays remarkably similar characters that do not stretch her acting abilities. Here, the role is unlike anything I have seen her play and she lives up to the hype. She is articulate, emotive without being stiff and surprisingly authoritative with the jargon. And on the turn of a dime, she becomes soft and subtly manipulative, most notably in a scene in an Afghan refugee camp when her character is walking a high-ranking member of the committee through and inspiring him to speak to the crowd and make a promise to them. In that scene she rules and the truth is that there is not a moment after she begins speaking that I felt I was watching Julia Roberts instead of Joanne.

But it is Phillip Seymour Hoffman who rules Charlie Wilson's War from the acting perspective. Ever since he appeared in the second greatest film of all time, Magnolia, I've been fascinated with his work. He had a wonderfully emotive performance in that film and finding a role that would top it has been a challenge for Hoffman. This is it, though. In this he plays Gust as a zen master one moment, a screaming ball of unrepressed anger the next. Hoffman is charged with making both extremes - and it seems Gust seldom exists outside the extremes - believable. Hoffman makes the viewer believe in the credibility of the middle-aged spymaster who has been passed over for career advancement and opportunities through his slouch, his delivery (no one can yell "Fuck you!" the way Hoffman can!) and the way he is able to focus when he has to to embody a strong sense of professionalism. In Charlie Wilson's War, Hoffman becomes a model for acting students everywhere with his range and versatility.

I am not much for special effects in films, but I have to say that Charlie Wilson's War does the spectacle thing right. Director Mike Nichols integrated historical footage from the '80s into the film and he does not hide the footage as it has obvious film quality differences. My only peeve with this is that it is not until near the end of the film that Nichols makes explicit how much time this whole process has taken, which is bothersome. He makes up for it with one of the most subtle and decent effects shots I've seen in recent films. Charlie stands in a refugee camp that is massive and an experienced moviegoer will instantly realize this is Tom Hanks standing in front of a bluescreen shot. It's a flawless merge, though. The effects department beautifully melds the shot so it looks like Hanks is actually there. Most viewers will likely miss it because it is so well executed!

It is worth noting as well that one of the selling points of Charlie Wilson's War was that Julia Roberts appears in a bikini in it. Honestly, the dialogue and mood at the time this comes up completely overshadows the spectacle of seeing yet another Hollywood-beautiful woman in a bathing suit. And yes, we do see Hanks' backside, and yet it is strangely unmemorable as the context makes it seem completely natural. Sadly, that scene - considering it is preceded by several breasts - is what will keep this film from being shown in high school classes in years to come. Tools.

Now on DVD, Charlie Wilson's War is presented well, but with depressingly few DVD bonus features. Indeed, there are only two featurettes, a behind-the-scenes and a biographic feature on the real Charlie Wilson. Given the number of big players and the importance of this story, one wishes for more, like a full-length commentary track (or three!) throughout the film.

So, who will like Charlie Wilson's War? Anyone who likes drama about the workings of establishment machines. This is not strictly a war movie and it is certainly not a straight comedy, though amid even the most serious scenes there are usually comedic lines (that's very Sorkin!). And it works. This is a wonderful character study of a man living up to his potential and those who enable him to do that. It's an understated drama that is a little plot-heavy, but for the most part, it's the story that shows how one of America's biggest sausages was made.

And now, more than ever, it's important people see that.

For other films that are essentially process stories, please check out my reviews of:
Wall Street
The Verdict
Flash Of Genius


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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