Saturday, December 22, 2007

Cocktails and Weapons

A few scenes into CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR a character mentions Scarsdale and it was enough to throw me out of the movie for a minute or so. As far as I can tell, this is the first mention Aaron Sorkin has ever made of his hometown in one of his scripts and since it’s my hometown as well, I’ve always felt a little simpatico with the guy. We’ve never met but if we ever do, I hope it’s an ok icebreaker.

It’s a pleasure to hear that familiar Sorkin syntax again, especially since none of it involves a character named ‘Matt Albie’. If I hadn’t known that he had written this script, it wouldn’t have taken me too long to figure it out and that adds to a lot of the enjoyment in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR. But here’s the thing: When watched now, AN AMERICAN PRESIDENT is like a kind of jazz played by somebody who is good, but not exactly the right person to be playing that particular music. What Sorkin does on the page completely crystallized with SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING, presenting his dialogue rhythms and indeed his entire world view in the exact right way. Now we have CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, a piece of music played by a master (Mike Nichols) who does a nice enough job playing it, but seems content to simply noodle around with the notes, never really digging in deeper to find what else might be there.

Set back in the dark days of the 1980s, Hanks plays hard-drinking Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, Roberts plays wealthy socialite Joanne Herring, Hoffman plays CIA operative Gust Avrakatos and the film details their unlikely quest to supply the Afghans with weapons to help them fight the invading Soviets. It’s idea with potential to get across ideas both serious and satiric about where we’ve gotten to now in the world, yes. But throughout the movie I found myself sitting there in the middle of all the politics and history and world events it portrays and wondering, ‘What is this movie really about?’ and the best answer I could come up with was that it was about Mike Nichols sitting back and enjoying these three actors (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all doing what they do very well. Especially Hoffman.) go through this snappy patter. There are far worse things to see, but there never seems to be any strong point of view about anything. Deep into the movie, there is a series of transition shots which get a particular point across in a visual, cinematic way and I found myself coming alive in my seat as the movie came alive for a brief moment. But just for a moment.

Maybe the movie didn’t want to delve too deeply into the nitty-gritty of the politics. Maybe someone thought that if certain things were said it would alienate a percentage of those buying tickets. Maybe it was the conundrum of making a movie where the people are alive and the tricky legal tightropes which have to be navigated so topics like 9/11 possibly aren’t alluded to as strongly as they should be so the movie feels like it has a purpose. This all comes to a head by the end (no spoilers) which seems to happen in a rather abrupt fashion, when it feels like there should be a drunken monologue by Hanks or something of real weight to cap everything off. I knew the running time was about 100 minutes going in but if I didn’t I’d wonder if we were missing something. So we probably are.

I liked some sections very much, particularly an extended sequence where Hoffman’s CIA man visits Wilson’s office for the first time. The interplay between those two men has more teeth than anything else here. Amy Adams plays Wilson’s chief aide(some nice shades of Josh Lyman and Donna Moss there), helping to prove that putting Amy Adams in your movie is a pretty good way to make it automatically better. And yes, Sorkin’s script does a very good job of getting to the point it needs to get to in scene after scene. It’s what’s missing in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR that gnaws at me, the places it seems unwilling to go to that make me wonder exactly what the purpose of the movie is. Unless it really is watching the three leads say the snappy patter. It’s entertaining to a point, but I wish there were more to it than that.

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