Sunday, December 23, 2007

REVIEW: Charlie Wilson's War

In the opening credits of "Charlie Wilson's War," an Afghan Muslim in traditional robes recites prayerss on his knees in stark black sillhouette against a picture-book starry sky, the moon framed in the upper left-hand corner in the perfect crescent shape of the traditional Islamic holy symbol. The figure then stands, revealing in his hands a shoulder-mounted rocket-launcher which he arms, aims and fires... straight at the audience.

It's probably the most jarring, politically-incorrect Title Sequence since James Bond starting projecting his credits onto reclining, gun-toting nude models; but it sets the tone of the piece perfectly: Here's a politically-saavy "dramedy" that approaches Cold War skullduggery, covert wars and the rise of terrorism with all the same martini-lubricated flippancy with which "The Thin Man" series once treated murder-solving. It's three main characters start off as, respectively, a booze-guzzling, skirt-chasing, favor-trading Congressman (Tom Hanks,) a blunt, bitter, bullheaded spy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and an ice-blooded, manipulative, hypocritical religious zealot (Julia Roberts) and more-or-less remain that way - the tale isn't so much about their growth (or lack thereof) as it is about them finding a situation where their eclectic skill-sets were actually useful in the doing - or at least attempting - of a genuine good.

Hanks is Charlie Wilson, a Reagan-era Texas Congressman who lives to indulge the benefits of representing a district small and well-off enough to not need anything of him: He goes to the best parties, sits on the most important committees, has the most important friends. His office is staffed entirely by alarmingly beautiful secretaries who could each easily be mistaken for the strippers and Playmates he staffs the REST of his life with. Roberts is Joanna Harring, a Texas billionairess who's "found Jesus" and committed her fortune to the cause of beating back The Godless Commies at any cost - including breaking the odd Commandment, circumventing the odd international law and sleeping with the odd Texas Congressman. Hoffman is Gust Avrakatos, a world-weary CIA sad-sack who can't quite believe that THESE two people are the magic-ingredients needed for the operation he's been DYING to launch, but he's willing to try it.

The problem with the Cold War is that Americans, now more than ever, prefer their history to A.) have a narrative and B.) have a SIMPLE narrative. We like clear wins over unambiguous evil decided by grand, heroic gestures. Well, the Cold War didn't work that way, it worked this way: Two superpowers stood across from one another, fists balled up, sneering and eyes ablaze like mortal enemies at the midpoint of "Dragonball Z" season, until the side that didn't believe in money, er... ran out of money and had to give up. That just won't do. So ever since, dwellers of the political "Right" have been telling themselves (and anyone else who'll listen) a reassuring bedtime story about how Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and The Pope beat down The Eeeeevil Empire all by themselves. To an extent, "Charlie Wilson's War" represents a late-in-coming attempt by dwellers of the political "Left" (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin!) to get a bedtime story of their own out of it - one in which a girl-crazy, super-slick Southern Democrat (hmm... who's THAT supposed to remind us of?) used his Austin Powers-style diplomacy to turn the Afghan Invasion into Gorby's Waterloo. Both versions are, of course, staggeringly-simplified history-as-mythology, and so long as the movie is entertaining there's really nothing wrong with it.

The film imagines Wilson as a good-time party boy who undergoes a gradual shift-of-focus as the images of Soviet-overrun Afghanistan start to trickle across his radar. Soon enough, he's realizing that his cushy seats and well-made friends on precisely every committee one would need to run a covert war; right around the time that Roberts' Harring starts asking him to do just that. Gust fills in the final piece of the puzzle, providing the services of himself and a small cadre of fellow action-hungry CIA vets looking to actually do something about the Russians. It's Shadow Government cloak-and-dagger warmaking as bachelor party planning, with Charlie as the sly-dog host who's sentimental enough to wrangle the vote of a key legislator by flying him to visit a blighted Afghan refugee camp; but worldly enough to know that nothing beats a talented bellydancer to break the ice during a tense meeting between Israeli, Pakistani and Egyptian arms dealers.

Given that it's a politically-themed film about the Middle East primarly made by famous Democrat supporters, there's been the usual predictable outcry from "conservatives" about the film - apparently, only THEY wish to be allowed the privilige of cherry-picking Cold War history for self-affirmation - coming with the usual claim that it's "propaganda" (which is sorta true, but I don't need to hear that from the folks who've been hyping "In The Face of Evil" for two damn years) and that it ultimately "blames America for terrorism."

That last part is especially false, and in a way the fact that it never ONCE comes anywhere CLOSE to doing that is something close to a problem with the final film: It's third act seems marginally truncated, as though it's building toward a definitive "oh by the way" about what some Afghanis may or may not have gone on to do with all those shiny new guns they still had once the Russians had been expelled that never really arrives. In fact, there's only ONE reference to you-know-what-future-date, a subtle but chilling aural detail that drifts by in the background noise of a single key scene.

Still, a just-this-short-of-great third act doesn't keep the rest of the film from great entertainment, the sort of grand smart-dialogue-for-everybody ideal that Sorkin excells in when he keeps the moralizing under control. Mike Nichols is a veteran who knows his way around a movie and manages the trick of making Sorkin-specialty walk-n-talks, cigars-and-brandy scheming, big-scale Afghan action scenes and the verbal slapstick of Charlie's secretary-squad all seem like parts of the same tonal piece.

This is a light, breezy, sharp-witted and whip-smart comedy that manages to encompass the realm of politics without being either too much of an attack OR too much self-congratulation. Oh, there's a little of both to be sure; but it's prodding with elbows - not daggers. If you come out of "Charlie Wilson's War" feeling either like you've been "attacked" or like patting yourself on the back; chances are you need to get over yourself.

FINAL RATING: 8/10