Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

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Charlie Wilson’s War
Dir. Mike Nichols
Premiered December 10, 2007

To those of you who are familiar with the Cold War, or who are currently watching The Americans, the story of the Soviet War in Afghanistan and its contribution to the end of the Soviet system itself will be familiar. You will recognize the famous photographs and remember movies like Red Dawn and The Living Daylights urging western support for Afghanistan’s freedom fighters, the Mujahideen. If you’re an underinformed jackass (or film critic Bob Mondello, who read way too deeply into I Am Legend), you’re probably getting ready to tell me that we were supporting the Taliban. But what you might not know, at least not until the release of Charlie Wilson’s War, is that none of it was supposed to happen, which is what makes this story so fascinating– fun, even.

In 1980, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a hard-partying Democratic congressman from Texas who becomes obsessed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and particularly the U.S. government’s perplexing unwillingness to fund the Mujahideen. Turns out he has a few kindred spirits: well-connected Texas socialite/activist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts); and CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is relegated to the meager Afghan desk after lashing out at mistreatment by his racist boss (John Slattery). On a fact-finding mission in Pakistan, Wilson not only witnesses the Afghani refugee crisis firsthand, but discovers that the Americans are deliberately ignoring the war, allowing the Afghanis to be slaughtered until the Russians hopefully run out of bullets.

Together, Wilson and Gust conspire to arm the Mujahideen. Wilson is convinced that he can raise all the money they need because he is part of the Congressional committee in charge of writing the CIA’s classified budget, and knows his efforts will go unnoticed while he’s under investigation for using cocaine. From there, and with the help of Wilson’s dedicated assistant (Amy Adams) and Amazon brigade of busty interns, they struggle to forge an agreement between the United States, Pakistan, Israel, and Egypt to give the Mujahideen the weapons they need to strike back at the Soviets.

Charlie Wilson’s War– the last film to be directed by the legendary Mike Nichols– would, in the hands of a lesser creative team, have been exactly the type of obnoxious awards-craving garbage that I have often struggled through in these final months of 2007. By all accounts, it’s still an Oscar Bait film– it’s just done by the right people. Sorkin, whose show The West Wing mined the vagaries of government for comedy as often as it did for drama, gives the film a much-needed sprinkling of levity, such as a surprisingly drawn-out scene wherein Wilson attempts to discuss covert funding with Gust but makes him leave the room over and over while his staffers alert him to news concerning his latest scandal.

Tom Hanks, meanwhile, is the only actor who could conceivably have played Wilson the way he was written. Any other performance would have played him in such a way as an unintentionally repulsive corrupt chauvinist, or at best a troubled antihero. Hanks nails it, playing Wilson as he truly was: an effortlessly charming rogue with a litany of vices but a heart of gold and an iron will, and you can tell he really had fun with it. Meanwhile, Gust isn’t that far off from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s other roles in 2007, but it’s easily his most likable role of the bunch, playing the agent as a bitter do-gooder who can dish it out as well as Wilson can. Julia Roberts’ accent may be off the mark, but she too is convincing as a well-meaning if questionably motivated high society-type. Really, all the main characters are outcasts of a sort. And that’s not to mention terrific performances by any number of minor and supporting actors.

There’s no shortage of people who tell you that the freedom fighters we supported in Afghanistan went on to become the Taliban– just read the YouTube comments on the trailer. In fact this is a shameful and insulting myth perpetuated by a mixture of fashionable third-worldist Anti-Americanism and casual racism. The Mujahideeen we supported were the Northern Alliance, the ones we put in power when the Taliban were ousted. The film knows this. It is more unapologetic for our covert war in Afghanistan than any film made since the Cold War. But it doesn’t shy away from our abandonment of the country, and the horrors that decision wrought.

In high school, I was required to read the People’s History of the United States by controversial far-left historian Howard Zinn. In an updated foreword to the book, Zinn writes that “the terrorists hate us” not for our freedoms, as conventional wisdom dictated at the time, but because we deny our freedoms to others. Now, as then, I believe Zinn was still stuck in the Cold War mindset and unable to appreciate the nature of our conflict. But in Charlie Wilson’s War there may be found a grain of truth in such statements.

Another book I read in high school, of my own choosing, was Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a comprehensive history of American involvement in the Middle East by Israeli politician Michael Oren, in which he states that the United States is the only country in the world that has, however rarely, acted beyond its own apparent self-interest. We did not act so kindly toward Afghanistan after the Cold War. By the film’s end, Wilson is a changed man, morally driven to honor our commitments to the people we helped take back their country; unfortunately, he’s the only one left– without an enemy to fight, upholding the promise of freedom and order isn’t seen as cost-effective.

Charlie Wilson’s War is a deceptively conventional film. The closest comparison I can think of is Ben Affleck’s Argo. But Argo was distinctive in how it juxtaposed espionage and Hollywood satire; the actions in Charlie Wilson’s War are not unusual, merely audacious. However, the film surpasses its mundane trappings through Aaron Sorkin’s script (and let’s be glad he was working in a director’s medium this time), wonderful performances by everyone involved– big names and small– and a refreshingly sober take on the political realities of the conflict in question. And– take this as you will, I’m no isolationist– it is a cautionary tale that needs to be seen more today, in a new age of delicately shifting alliances, a resurgent Cold War, and millions of refugees fleeing unimaginable horror, than any time since its release.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
In an effort to demonstrate how far from the public mind Afghanistan was at the time, one of Wilson’s staff mistakes the country with Uzbekistan. In the 1980s, Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, and no independent country of that name had ever existed.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $119 million, Charlie Wilson’s War was the 49th biggest film of 2007 and the 40th biggest worldwide, but was hobbled by a $75 million budget. But critics were all over it, earning the picture an 82% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and earning Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In light of its subject matter, many were quick to ascribe present-day subtext to the film– for some, like CinePassion’s Fernando Croce, this was actually a dealbreaker. When interviewed about this in Time magazine however, Tom Hanks shot down any such suggestions, out of a respect for history…and a well-earned desire to distance the film from the rash of disastrous movies that year which had been overtly critical of US policy abroad.

Most notably though, Charlie Wilson’s War was the last directorial effort by eclectic all-around entertainer Mike Nichols, who will show up in these retrospectives again and again– if you ever watched old movies on HBO in the middle of the day as a kid, I guarantee you’ve seen at least four of his movies. Nichols died in 2014, but I’m glad he got to go out on a high note like this one.

Next Time: Alvin and the Chipmunks

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Enchanted (2007)

enchanted

Enchanted
Dir. Kevin LimaPremiered at London October 20, 2007

I remember a time before there was such a thing as a Disney Princess. Of course, Walt Disney Animation Studios made a few movies based on fairy tales with princesses in them, but they were always a small portion of WDAS’ content, and for the thirty years leading up to my birth, they didn’t make any movies like that. Furthermore, they were just that: movies based on fairy tales that happened to have princesses in them. But with the studio’s sudden return to respectability, mostly on the backs of fairy-tales, themes began to emerge. And usually, there had to be a princess.

Sometime in the late 1990s, it happened: backpacks, jackets, all pink, all showing the various “princess” characters, or just any female protagonists, from the Disney Animated Canon, together at last in their anachronistic, artistically clashing glory; the type of undiscerning nostalgic pastiche that characterized the Eisner era. It was this repackaging that made the “Disney Princess” ripe for parody by the likes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. Luckily, the period that saw Eisner finally ousted was one in which media companies were increasingly comfortable poking fun at their public image (see Rock, 30), and Disney did not disappoint.

Enchanted begins in the animated land of Andalasia, where the evil queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) plots to keep the throne by preventing her dashing stepson Prince Edward (James Marsden) from meeting his true love. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s not supposed to.

Unfortunately, Edward has already met and intended to marry the humble but good-hearted and multitalented Giselle (Amy Adams). Fearing for her grasp on power, Narissa pushes Giselle into a magical fountain which transports her into a much darker world– ours. And when Edward follows her in, Narissa sends her infatuated minion Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) to kill her.

Suddenly confronted with the harsh reality of 21st century New York City, Giselle is rescued by Robert (Patrick Dempsey) a divorce lawyer and single father who’s engaged to fashion designer Nancy (Idina Menzel) and has a fashionable distaste for fairy tales.

I first saw Enchanted with my first girlfriend, not long after it came out. I thought it was enjoyable enough, but eight years and a serious nerd upgrade later, Enchanted comes off as way more impressive. Merging two distinct eras of Disney Animation, the character archetypes and plot are reminiscent of the films from Walt’s era, while the animation style and music are pure ‘90s. And it’s full of clever little details: at one point, Edward vanquishes a troll that makes the Goofy scream. Later, he watches TV and sees Edgar Bergen’s bit in Fun and Fancy Free. A bunch of former Disney Princesses make cameos. And in a surprisingly dark bit of self-awareness, Robert’s widowhood means his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) is yet another princess (of sorts) without a mother.

The movie still could’ve fallen flat, however, if not for its cast. Nobody but Amy Adams could’ve played Giselle straight, unselfconsciously throwing herself into the role like a little girl and bringing immense likability to what could’ve been another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Similarly, James Marsden is perfect as overconfident doofus Edward; I laughed almost every time he spoke in the film. He really is one of those actors who are funny but too handsome to be recognized for it on a more than occasional basis, but here he gets his chance and runs with it. The weakest link here is Patrick Dempsey. His performance is perfectly fine, but I can’t help but imagine Robert being played in an earlier era by Tom Hanks or even Billy Crystal. And while Susan Sarandon plays Narissa expertly in live-action, she spends most of the movie as a cartoon, during which I can’t stop picturing her recording her lines in the studio.

If Enchanted has one problem, it’s that it does its job so well, deconstructing the fairy tale mythos while enjoyably celebrating it, then spends the last few minutes leaping right up its own ass. When the climax arrives, Enchanted suddenly becomes so pleased with itself for subverting the Disney Princess brand as to give the impression that the filmmakers genuinely thought they were breaking new ground, as if (a) the audience hasn’t been watching a parody this whole time and (b) the rest of the world hasn’t already called attention to it. But it’s surprisingly short-lived, and Enchanted still gets a heartfelt recommendation.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Giselle’s transformation to real-world beauty involves getting her hair straightened.

Signs This Was Written in 1997
The film still stereotypes New Yorkers as unfriendly.

How Did It Do?
Enchanted grossed $340.5 million against an $85 million budget, and earned a stellar 93% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Critics, it seemed, were shocked that Disney not only managed to create a genuine family film– not a kids’ film movie with pop culture references for mom and dad, but a movie that could be enjoyed as a whole by people of all ages– but did so at a time when the rest of Hollywood had vainly struggled to do the same. And no fewer than three of Alan Menken’s compositions for the film received Oscar nominations for Best Original Song.

Disney needed Enchanted in 2007 in the same way it needed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988; a promising reprieve after the years of Eisner’s joyless paranoia. WDAS returned to its bread and butter of blue-chip folklore adaptations, but one begins to wonder if the company is a little too obsessed with self-deconstruction. This was, after all, the first of many Disney properties to have a tiresome, winking one-word adjective title. But it was worth it for this.

Next Time: Youth Without Youth