Saturday, December 29, 2007

MOVIES- Charlie Wilson's War

Political movies out of Hollywood are always suspect. There is little doubt that the film community is more liberal than the heartland of the country but I’m always amazed that people act like that is something odd or unexpected. Artistic communities are always unconventional. The very idea of making art is unconventional. Normal, conservative people get regular jobs and raise families, they don’t go off on lifelong pursuits of artistic endeavor. Saying that artists are all unconventional folks with ideas that are outside the box is like saying that basketball players are unusually tall or that geeks love science. It’s the thing that makes them different that gives them the ability to do something unusual. You might as well incredulously observe that dogs bark.

Currently we are awash in political movies. Rendition, Redacted, Lions for Lambs, and several other movies are taking on the war in Iraq and the current political situation. Predictably, the majority are from a liberal point of view. Charlie Wilson’s War is different in a number of ways. It is a period piece, not dealing with the current situation in the middle east but instead telling the story of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, almost 30 years ago. Second, it is unflinchingly patriotic, even for the most red meat conservative. The US is portrayed as a hero, coming to the aid of a meager country beset by a superpower, a religious country attacked by godless communists. Like Charlie Wilson, the audience is on the side of the Afghanis. It’s hard to imagine any American that wouldn’t be stirred by the idea of a rag-tag band of people fighting the greatest army in the world for their independence. After all, it’s the story of our own independence.

CW’s War is not only surprising for it’s lack of liberal bias but for how good a movie it is considering that it’s mostly people talking, with only a few cut scenes to remind us that it’s a war that they are talking about. Luckily the screenplay was written by the master of this kind of thing- Aaron Sorkin. The script is nuanced, the dialog is witty, and serious attention has been paid to historical accuracy. The complaint I usually hear about Sorkin’s writing is that his characters are all a little too smart to be believable but here he seems able to tone that down a little.

There is little here that can be criticized for being Hollywood hyperbole. And the story doesn’t need it. Mike Nichols directs with a style that is almost invisible. Sure, there are shots that follow a beautiful woman walking down the halls of congress from behind, slowly panning up from her heels to her derrière, only to hesitate there for a moment before the reveal which shows the woman’s identity. But for the most part there is nothing to draw your attention to the fact that you are watching a movie. Instead you are drawn into the events, absorbed with the characters, touched by the plight of the Afghan children. Seldom does the camera remind you that you are watching a movie. Good direction, like anything else, is often defined by not drawing attention to itself. That is certainly the case here.

The performances of the actors are likewise, nuanced yet invisible. That’s difficult for such a cast. Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson with is usual alacrity. His generic corn-pone southern accent is a little tired but apparently the real Charlie Wilson’s main attribute was his likeability and that has always been Hanks bread and butter. Julia Roberts also does a fine turn as Joanna Herring- perhaps a bit less coquettish and a little harder than the actual person but here is another real character (like Erin Brockovitch) that she doesn’t so much portray as represent. But the standout is certainly Phillip Seymour Hoffman, here as far from his Oscar turn as Capote as he could get. He plays Gustave Avrakotos, the blue collar CIA operative, in a sort of low key mumble and bumble style yet somehow gives him an undercurrent of dangerousness. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get an Oscar nod for supporting actor. Having said that, I must admit that every time he opened his mouth I was reminded of a cross between Seth Green’s Chris Griffin on Family Guy, and Ted Levine as Jame (Buffalo Bill) Gumb in Silence of the Lambs. I kept waiting for him to say, “It puts the lotion on its skin.” but somehow he never did. Anyway, despite this little disappointment, the performance was riveting.

The movie also does a good job of recounting how Afghanistan wound up in the hands of a militant Taliban without actually rubbing the audience’s nose in the history lesson. The loss of the Afghan war was the last imperialist stroke of the Soviet regime. The resulting backlash brought Gorbachev into power and spelled the doom of the Communist regime in the 20th century (its resurgence in the 21st is still in question). The winning of the Afghan war left the US as the only superpower and, just as the end of the first world war sowed the seeds of the second, had unintended consequences that resulted in the “war on terror”. Perhaps Charlie Wilson’s War will allow Hollywood to remind the American people to how we got into the current situation without setting off the right wing propagandists whose only gripe would have to be that the movie doesn’t reinforce their fantasy that Regan single-handedly ended the cold war. World history is full of grey areas. Charlie Wilson’s war is similarly neither black nor white, but it is something every American should see if he wants to know a little more about how we got into the mess we are currently have in the middle east. Plus, it’s a pretty darn good movie.

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