Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Charlie Wilson's War" -- * * *

In the interest of full disclosure, I read an early draft of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for "Charlie Wilson's War" last summer. If a direct translation of that screenplay was made, "Charlie" would've easily been one of the best movies of the year. It was a very funny, dense, informative, morally murky account of a little known story in our nation's history, that perfectly encapsulated the complexity of the U.S.'s foreign policy. It told the story of an initially great thing this congressman did that eventually resulted in the creation of the Taliban. The way pared-down, 97-minute end result now making it's way into theaters is relatively streamlined, easier to follow, and substantially lighter and more "fun;" it's a very entertaining, clever romp that mostly dodges that pesky Taliban stuff. The "Charlie" being released is still smarter and zippier than most anything out there right now, and I absolutely recommend it, but it packs substantially less of a punch than this material should, and omits some of the most fascinating, complex aspects of this true story to deliver a brisker experience more palatable to the masses.

Opening with the silhouette of a turban-clad figure firing a missile at the camera, "Charlie" announces in its opening seconds it's not going to be your typical, dry political procedural. It follows the story of how boozing, coke-snorting, promiscuous Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and hardcore-Christian, Communist-hating Texas richie Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) collaborated to get weapons to the Afghan rebels, the Mujahdeen, behind the backs of a U.S. government who could not have cared less. For those not old enough to remember-- myself included-- at the time, 1980, the Afghans were the underdog, and floundering trying to defend themselves from the Russian Invasion. 21 years later, well... it came back to bite us in the ass.

Regardless of how trimmed down, this is an inherently interesting story, if not necessarily the feel-good romp Universal is selling it as. It truly is one of those stories that's stranger than fiction, and even simplified, it's fairly unbelievable and gripping. Sorkin's always had a way with smart, snappy dialogue and "Charlie" is no exception; most of the knockout lines go to Hoffman, but Charlie's rationale for only hiring young buxom women is one of the first real laugh lines in the movie ("You can teach them to type, you can't teach them to grow tits").

To be fair, while this "Charlie" is a bit de-balled (the script I read ended on 9/11 with Charlie looking out the window and seeing the Pentagon on fire)-- apparently at the insistence/ threatened legal action of the real-life Ms. Herring-- the sense of blowback/regret/ repercussions is dealt with here, if only in the last few minutes. There's a great scene of Gust explaining how a ball keeps bouncing even once we're done paying attention to it, and you can't always predict where it'll end up, and a metaphoric story about a boy and zen master involving the phrase "We'll see." The story is only punctuated (effectively) by the ominous sounds of a plane flying overhead, reminiscent of Spielberg's inclusion of the twin towers in the background of the closing shot of "Munich." Ending with a quote ("These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... And then we fucked up the endgame") from Charlie Wilson, and book-ended with sequences of Charlie guiltily accepting an award with his eyes filled with tears and regrets, the sense of culpability and eventual results are still here and unmissable, but it's not quite enough. For a subject/theme that's arguably the only reason to tell this story at all, it deserves to not be relegated to the last 5-10 minutes.

Hanks plays Wilson as a more flawed variation on his likable charmers in the past; sure, this congressman may do the occasional line of coke, and fuck strippers, but we sure do love him anyway. Though he plays the later scenes rather effectively, this oddly doesn't feel like anything particularly new for Hanks (maybe it would've helped if we actually witnessed him doing lines or having the sex, not just heard about it) and even with a Suth'n drawl, he comes off as the same old Oscar winner we know and love.

Hoffman is, by far, the best reason to see this movie. As a Russian-hating, mustachioed Greek CIA agent never seen without his aviators, the amazing actor is having a blast with Sorkin's dialogue, knowing full well he's walking away with every scene he's in (not the least of which is his killer introductory sequence). In his 2007 trifecta of "Charlie Wilson," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "The Savages," this is his least defined character and least complex/challenging performance, but the most fun to watch. There's no character definition on display here, for anyone really, but Hoffman makes what's on the page deliciously entertaining.

Despite her prominence in the publicity materials, thankfully, Roberts' Herring is only in "Charlie" as much as Amy Adams (as Charlie's right-hand girl), which is to say, not much. This is really the story of Charlie and Gust doing shit, with Joanne calling them on the phone every once in a while. Her broad accent is actually much more bearable in the context of the movie than in the ads ("Oh, Chaaaahlie!"), but with no more than 10-15 minutes on screen, it's not much of a role/performance. The Golden Globe nomination is a joke.

"Charlie Wilson's War" is ultimately intelligent, funny and extremely entertaining, but it's hard to overlook the unfulfilled potential. At the end of the day, this movie's not going to make much money no matter what, so they might as well have gone all the way with it rather than hedging their bets (likely due to all the geopolitical-related films this year bombing hard). For the snappy screenplay and Philip Seymour Hoffman's scene-stealing performance alone, it's worth your time and money. However, it really could have been a lingering, weighty film of substance, rather than slight political fare you'll have trouble remembering the details of the next day.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Best Adapted Screenplay


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