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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War surprised me pleasantly. It contains a fair amount of commercial routine, but the heart of the film, the protagonists' manipulation of the political system, is so pragmatic and literal that it challenges the identification structure that usually propels this kind of drama. The most idealistic of our heroes is a religious right-wing extremist; the most far-sighted are intelligence officers who like to talk about "killing Russians"; the "voice of conscience" role is given to a military dictator. At the center of the operation, liberal congressman Charlie Wilson seems driven less by righteousness than a pleasure in operating large political machinery. His amorality extends beyond his private life to encompass his political relationships, and from certain angles the film can be interpreted as making a case for amorality as a social value.

Aaron Sorkin's remarkable script deserves much of the credit for the film's success, but we are reminded again that Mike Nichols can be a superb director of actors, and he guides Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman away from the commandeering of audience identification that is the acting profession's version of original sin.

One of Charlie Wilson's limitations, however, is instructive. The film is set against the background of real-life, large-scale human suffering: Afghanistan's plight during the Soviet invasion. And yet the film is not, structurally speaking, about this large and important topic. It is in essence a caper film: its appeal is based on the excitement of watching a band of allies mount a complex strategic assault on a system.

This collision of modes is tricky to manage. There is intrinsic black humor in the idea of focusing on small-scale personal triumph in the midst of global suffering, and Nichols and Sorkin occasionally try for black humor, particularly in the film's combat scenes. But Charlie Wilson is not unconventional enough to throw away the commercial benefits of having a Big Subject, nor to steer completely clear of a sentimental "we changed the world" tone at key moments (like the beginning and ending). Inevitably, its substantial virtues are undercut by its confusion about whether the Afghan crisis is its raison d'etre or a MacGuffin.



Anonymous vadim said...

And I'm pleasantly surprised that you're pleasantly surprised — I'm always grateful when Tom Hanks gets to play someone other than Mr. America. He really is a skilled comic actor, when given half a chance to stretch (see also The Terminal and the 'burbs, not that I expect you to agree).

But I think you're wrong about the ending. IMDB scuttlebutt claims that Sorkin's script originally made it very clear that Wilson leads directly to Osama getting training for 9/11; after much vigorous protesting, it was tamped down to that final quote ("We had it, and we fucked up the endgame" or whatever it was). But it's pretty clear in the movie that - heroic music or no - you should be alarmed by the imagery of Afghanis with sophisticated weapons shooting down everything in sight. The ending recapitulates the beginning to undermine Wilson's achievement, suggesting exactly what's happened is a direct path to 9/11. If anything, I felt like this was too heavy-handed — the last 5 minutes are a lecture, what with the education-funding scene. Sentimentality seems overshadowed. (On the other hand, Nichols doesn't seem to know what to do with the refugee camp sequence, besides get it over with speedily. Can't say I blame him.)

But otherwise I dug this movie. The set-piece with Hoffman entering/exiting Hanks' office is pretty unimpeachable.

December 27, 2007 7:45 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Vadim - I did notice the shift to pessimism at the end - perhaps I shouldn't have used the phrase "we changed the world" to describe the tone of that section. But the weltschmertz that permeates the ending strikes me as sentimental. If Charlie's bid for education money for Afghanistan seems like a lecture, it's because the film is guiding our emotional responses with a simple story dynamic and with music.

And, more to the point, the ending positions the movie as being about the Afghan crisis, whereas it is structurally more about the joy of manipulating the system to one's ends.

I haven't seen The Terminal and haven't seen most of The Burbs, but I like Hanks - I have very fond memories of him in Cast Away a few years back. He's terrific in Charlie Wilson - very Premingerian in the way he lets his charm and schmooze show without signposting it as good or evil.

I must admit that I wish that Sorkin had avoided the joke about Hoffman bugging the liquor bottle in that first Hanks-Hoffman scene. But, yeah, overall the scene is wonderful.

December 28, 2007 10:52 AM  

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