Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Wow. It's been a while since I've updated this thing, but I'd like to dust off the cobwebs and make a fresh start, beginning with a few films I had the privilege of seeing a bit early at this year's "Butt-Numb-A-Thon" in Austin, TX.

I was concerned, watching the previews for this and having never read the book, that the movie was glorifying what America did in Afghanistan and overlooking the fact that, for all the good it did in our conflicts with Russia, it created a new conflict with a new enemy - one that we are still dealing with and are still no closer to resolving. But of course the movie doesn't overlook it - how could it do so, having been written by one of the most conscientious politically-minded writers of our time? We just don't see that aspect in the trailers, because that's the twist of the story. Not a twist in the sense of something we suddenly learn, but it's kind of the poisonous punch line of the film.

The meat of Charlie Wilson's War belongs to Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I had all but given up on Hanks as an interesting actor. For the past several years, he has seemed to be just playing the Tom Hanks character in any movie he was in, but his Charlie is a refreshing step in a new direction. It's unnerving at first to see him in a hot tub with a bunch of hot naked babes - not to mention the rear nakedness of Hanks himself - but he's very believable as a deeply flawed politician who has charm and at least a drop of human decency (though not much more). Hoffman is always amazing, but he really takes a bite out of Sorkin's writing and goes to town with it.

Oh yeah, Sorkin. Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame. He of the occasional platitudes and preachiness, but don't you wish you could preach like he can? This is one of my favorite bits of Sorkin writing. It's not as stirring as, say, Martin Sheen's first appearance as President Bartlett or Michael J. Fox's speech about patriotism in The American President. It's much more subtle, and I think all the stronger for that. It pushes buttons, certainly, but you'd never know it. It brings the point home firmly but quietly, without fanfare. Perhaps it's Mike Nichols' direction that reigns it in, or maybe not having a score by W.G. Snuffy Walden makes it seem less obviously uber-patriotic. But there are no great speeches about how the victory in Afghanistan has led to our troubles in the Middle East. Just a story Hoffman tells about a Zen master and a quote from the real Charlie Wilson about how yeah all this was great, but then we messed it up in the end.

Critics who slam the film for painting the US as the white knights are missing the point entirely, I feel. This is what America has always done - go in to some situation we know very little about, put a band-aid on it, and then leave, not thinking or caring how what we've done affects the future. Perhaps this movie won't tell you anything you don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that there will be someone in the darkened auditorium with you who for whom this is new information.

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