Dec 3, 2007

On Charlie Wilson's War

A refreshing burst of irreverence is always in order from Mike Nichols and with his new film Charlie Wilson’s War he’s serving up a “true” 1980s Washington satire, an era of blissful naivete concerning our military commitments, with panache and something resembling abandon– it’s a light and breezy ride that doesn’t tire even as it befuddles. It’s fun to look back at simpler, less apocalyptic times and wonder, “why on Earth did they cast Ned Beatty as that Congressman” (he also plays one in Paul Schrader’s forthcoming “The Walker”, but more on that later), yet I was more struck by the sheer oddity of the nuts and bolts of the film, its lack of center, the flimsy moral ground it seems so sure of, its seeming lack of a raison d’etre, and after a week’s reflection, I’ve yet to discover any answers for the conundrums the film leaves it is wake and I can’t help but appreciate its generous gifts.

The picture stars Tom Hanks, finally recovered from the comedic stumble that was his participation in The Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers remake, as Democrat Charles Wilson, the womanizing, booze loving, House Armed Forces Sub-Committee sitting Congressman from Texas second district, who as legend and George Crile’s book would have it, instigated the operations which helped topple the Soviet Union during the 1980s by buying and filtering weapons to Afghan rebels through Pakistan. In 1981, Mr. Wilson was in a hot tub atop a Vegas casino with a bevy of coked out strippers when he saw Dan Rather in a turban in the Afghan desert delivering a report on Afghan rebels fighting a protracted, but so far losing battle against the Soviets. Seizing on it as the next big thing in American strategic alliances against the Soviets (who as we now know had a crumbling economy far earlier), he inquires about funneling more money and weapons to the rebels (uh…Taliban), doubling their budget from 5 to 10 million with relative ease.

Over the course of the next decade, as a hungry young federal prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani tries unsuccessfully to bring the fun loving Congressman to his knees for ethics violations, Wilson pushes the covert American support effort into the hundreds of millions of dollars, enabling the Afghans to push the Russians out, as was so elegantly delicted in Rambo III. With the help of angry, skilled and recently exiled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the 6th richest woman in Texas, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a right wing Evangelical society woman with international ties and an intense desire to stamp out Communism’s spread (and an occasional romantic interloper of Mr. Wilson’s), the film suggests that Mr. Wilson stamped out the Soviets imperial ambitions, even as it implicitly acknowledges that he armed a generation of young men who would soon resent American’s unchecked world power and unrelenting involvement in middle eastern affairs while being unable to convince his fellow Americans to provides jobs and schools for the newly liberated Afghanis. Although the operation that Mr. Wilson spearheaded was surely the effort of a far larger, more complex system of government oversight, compromise, coercion and decade long policy shift to allow the Afghanis to have the tools to drive the Russians out, like so many films about the delicate business of public policy, Mr. Nichols takes all the shortcuts he can, and God bless him – who really needs another episode of K Street?

The cast is having great fun and playing to their strengths, especially Mrs. Roberts, who is sexier, funnier, smarter and more vibrant here than she has been since Erin Brockovich and Mr. Hoffman, who is in the midst of a banner decade and is quickly becoming America’s most indispensable film actor. Hanks does a wonderful job of carrying the film, giving us a lovable, uncomplicated hedonist with a grace and levity missing from just about every politician I can think of. For the most part, Mr. Nichols is doing what he does best, revealing, in longish medium two shots, walk and talks (a specialty of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) and genuinely inspired conversational set pieces, the hypocrisy and vanity that exists in whatever social arena “A Mike Nichols Film” tackles, with a cool distance from his characters emotional lives that always contains the beginnings of a melancholia his films almost never succumb too. But unlike his sterling Clinton parable Primary Colors, he chooses to ignore the larger ideological questions the narrative raises and invites his post Cold War audience to revel in the simplicity of fighting monolithic bands of Rooskie Marx lovers with a token bit of circumspection and doubt thrown in at the end, not nearly enough to justify the ease in which he invites the audience to align themselves with the imperial impulse that Wilson represents (unknowingly), even if he‘s far from its embodiment.

Of course, these drawbacks wouldn’t quite be as glaring if the film had a third act; instead of dramatizing the failures of the post Soviet collapse era, the film trades in pithy quotes from Wilson talking about how we screwed up “the end game” after a pair of on the nose scenes involving Gust’s growing concerns about who is filling the power vacuum in Kabul. Alas, in a mere 89 minutes it’s tough to represent a complete picture of a dense piece of history, especially in a commercial comedy. Yet the disarmingly uneven Nichols, who has as many masterpieces to his credit (Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate, Angels in America, Wit) as he does unqualified failures (What Planet Are You From?, Catch 22, Postcards From The Edge), proves just as incapable of grasping the delicate, incomprehensible complexities lurking within our dangerous age as all the other masters making movies about the middle eastern troubles.