Monday, December 31, 2007

Entertaining Politics or Politicized Entertainment?

Mike Nichols has been on a roll since 2001 when he directed Emma Thompson in a wrenching role as a terminal cancer patient in Wit. He then moved on to the astounding Angels in America (2003) miniseries and followed that with the intense Closer (2004). His latest effort Charlie Wilsons’s War finds him continuing that streak by portraying Congressman Charlie Wilson and his “war” against the Communist forces that invaded Afghanistan in the mid-80s. With this film, Nichols teams up with writer Aaron Sorkin to invite us into the sanctum sanctorum of political offices where the real wheeling and dealing takes place. Nichols has pulled off quite a feat as politics is rarely displayed as entertainingly as it is in Charlie Wilson’s War.

Tom Hanks stars as the titular Congressman Wilson, a man who enjoys the finer things in life: scotch and crotch, tail and ale, etc. One day the lascivious representative is contacted by Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a wealthy Houston-ite with a moral inclination to fight the invading Communist forces. After a romp with Herring, Wilson is persuaded to stop in Pakistan during his next trip to discuss US funding of the skirmish with the country’s president. The president of Pakistan convinces Wilson to visit an Afghan refugee camp so he will fully grasp the situation. Wilson and his secretary, Bonnie Bach (the wonderful-as-always Amy Adams), arrive to find a massive amount of wounded Afghan refugees (for scale: imagine the injured soldier shot from Gone with the Wind except a hundred times bigger). His heart having grown three sizes that day, Wilson returns to Washington to start getting funding.

But spending the appropriated funds on the appropriate things won’t be an easy task. Enter CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (an interestingly mustachioed Philip Seymour Hoffman). The equally-drinking, just-as-skirt-chasing-but-not-quite-as-successful Gust combines with the pre-established Wilson/Herring alliance to form a new anti-Communist triumvirate. Through a myriad of meetings, the trio gains the support of Egypt, Israel, and Pakistan (odd bedfellows that they are) and they start to see results in their covert war against the Communist forces.

Performance-wise, everyone in this picture is successful. Hanks does well as the Texan forced to juggle his political and personal lives amid sundry drug allegations and international beratings. Roberts doesn’t really get to display any chops with her character, though she does manage to squeeze in icy (to everyone but Wilson) and a little zealous intensity. Hoffman has become one of my favorite actors and he doesn’t disappoint. In this film he gets to mix intensity with hilarity, a combination which suits him well.

The film occasionally employs what appears to be actual video footage from the skirmish. While this gives those particular shots an extra sense of reality, it is also somewhat distracting. Everything starts simply enough with video of ascending Communist helicopters, but then it cuts to a view from the cockpit as said helicopters mow down Afghani villagers. It wouldn’t be as jarring a cut if it went from video to video or film to film, but it jumps from grainy video quality to a clear filmic quality which matches the rest of the preceding movie. Think Dancer in the Dark but without a point for mixing the media. On top of that, the machine gun fire seen from the cockpit looks a little too much like lasers that were displaced from some random sci-fi film.

The opening of the film is also interesting. It shows a Middle-Easterner silhouetted against an evening sky. He then picks up a rocket launcher and a big fireball shoots toward the camera, then the title shows up. It’s a black background and the letters are made of an American flag backdrop. The black background then fades into a shot of the giant aforementioned flag a la Patton. It’s a ceremony honoring Wilson for his success against the Commies. Wilson is introduced and receives his standing ovation. From this scene it jumps to the beginning of the story and we meet Wilson sitting in a hot tub with strippers and a TV producer. This seems to be a pointless temporal framing, sort of a “How did I become so successful? Well, let me tell ya.” The only foreseeable reason for starting the film with undying adoration for Wilson is so the audience isn’t shocked during initial scenes of his drinking and cavorting with questionable characters. He may be doing “bad things”, but he’s been established as the “good guy” (collective audience wipes the nervous sweat which has accumulated on their brow). But then again, maybe it’s just a “here are the main players” intro. As the former is mildly insulting to an audience that doesn’t make knee-jerk, close-minded opinions about what they’re initially shown, let’s assume it’s the latter. Or we can assume that society requires the former.

One thing that should be noted is that some of these Afghan forces to whom the US supplied weapons went on to become anti-American extremist groups. Some viewers may be miffed by the film’s lack of current-day ramifications, but as the focus is on a mid-80’s Afghanistan and not turn-of-the-century America, this isn’t necessary and shouldn’t even be an issue. There is no “And they gave all the weapons back and 9/11 never happened” epilogue. But the film manages to hint at the fickle scales of political leaning by noting that time and perspective can change things which seem final and apparent. To get this point across, the film invokes a parable about a young boy and a Zen master delivered by Gust to Wilson after their successful campaign. My attempted re-telling:

A little boy prayed for a horse and one day he received a horse and everyone said, “This is a great thing!” And the Zen Master said, “We’ll see.” Then the boy was thrown from the horse and broke both of his legs, and everyone said, “This is a terrible thing!” And the Zen Master said, “We’ll see.” Then the country went to war and everyone but the little boy had to go fight. And the people said, “He’s still here! This is a great thing!” to which the Zen master replied, “We’ll see.”

The situation/intentions of people can change. What was good at the time (us giving weapons to the Middle East) might not be good now. This also casts the introduction with the rocket heading toward the audience in a different light. As it is shown outside of any timeframe, it becomes a rocket fired at the (implicitly American) audience by a Middle-Easterner. So it’s easy to guess as to which way the scale is currently tilting. It’s not every film that starts by attacking the audience.

Charlie Wilson’s War is a fantastic marriage of politics and entertainment. It gives the viewer a decent synopsis of the events (and those who aren’t sated know they can always get the complete, unadulterated story from wikipedia…) while being propelled forward by a fuel concocted of humor and heartstring tugging. Though this cinematic package may arrive with a few dents in its box, the contents arrive intact and just in the nick of time.

by Jacob Shoaf

1 comment:

Brandon Colvin said...


This review is excellent. Way to go.