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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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Premiered at Deauville September 7, 2007

In the 2000s, a typical year in the US would see around 150 theatrical releases in a year, with rarely more than five films debuting in a busy weekend. For some reason, 2007 was different; well over 200 films got American releases, wide or limited, with some weekends seeing as many as seven, eight, or nine new films. So part of the reason 2007 produced so many good movies is that it produced so many more movies, period. This is also why this explosion of creative energy made little impact on box office records– the lesser-known original films were crowding each other out. And it may also explain why Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a heavily advertised, critically-acclaimed A-list film from a name director, has managed to become obscure. It doesn’t deserve that fate.

One sunny morning, the proprietress of a suburban jewelry store (Rosemary Harris) is confronted by an armed, masked robber, shooting him dead, but not before getting shot herself. The erstwhile getaway driver speeds off in shock.

Three days earlier, deadbeat divorcee Hank Hanson (Ethan Hawke), behind on his child support payments, desperately asks his successful realtor brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to help him out. Andy, who claims to need money himself despite appearances, has a better idea: to rob their parents, who own a jewelry store in the suburbs. Afraid to confront them himself, Hank acquires the services of lowlife thief Bobby (Bryan F. O’Byrne), who comes armed. The robbery is botched when mother Nannette turns out to be minding the store instead of father Charles (Albert Finney). By the end of the day, one person is dead and another is dying.

Desperate for help, Hank calls Andy in his office. Here, the story rewinds once more, and this movie becomes amazing, as we discover why Andy needs the money: he’s been embezzling funds from his business in order to support his heroin habit, and is keen to escape the country before the feds come after him. Also, his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) is having an affair– with Hank.

With each new development, the film reverses course, as if saying “wait, I need to go back and tell you this first,” creating an an increasingly twisted but expertly constructed tableau that’s equal parts Rashomon and Fargo. Characters and situations pile up like car wrecks on a foggy road, a sense amplified by the film’s unusual white filter, washing the film out like an interrogation room, a drug trip, the reflection off a diamond, or the light one allegedly sees at death. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is one of the best films of 2007, and it deserves to be remembered as such. At the very least, it puts the familial dysfunction of Dan in Real Life to shame.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Among the many character actors who make appearances is Blaine Horton, whose sole other credit as an actor is as Sacha, the fey redhead in Jenna Maroney’s entourage on an episode of 30 Rock which aired just a few weeks after Devil’s premiere.

Additional Notes

  • Gina points out that there’s no extradition treaty between Brazil and the United States. She’s right, but she says she heard it in a movie once, and in the film she’s likely thinking of, David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, the country in question is Venezuela.

  • Marisa Tomei is also naked in quite a lot of this movie, which is nice. Costanzas take note.

  • However, Philip Seymour Hoffman playing an intractable junkie makes this film a bit harsher in hindsight.

How Did It Do?
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead undersold in the US. Though relatively successful in Western Europe (especially Italy), its $25 million gross couldn’t recover the marketing costs against its $18 million budget.

However, it was a critical smash, earning an 88% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. NPR’s David Edelstein predicted Oscar Glory for the film, but it received nothing so much as a nomination. Ten years on, the film is shamefully absent from streaming services or even iTunes or Netflix DVD, and it took a full week to hunt down at the Los Angeles Public Library. This is not okay.

Critics proclaimed the film a return to form for Sidney Lumet. Unfortunately, it would be his last; he passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.

Next Time: The Brothers Solomon

The Savages (2007)

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The Savages
Dir. Tamara Jenkins
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

This retrospective has given me plenty of opportunities to bash the Mediocre Prestige Film. This time I get to talk about its distant cousin, the Dour Indie Dramedy. It’s similar to Oscar Bait, but instead of self-important grasps at relevance and big soliloquies, it has low production values, unfocused middle-class angst, awkward attempts at “quirky” comedy, unappealing nude scenes, a soundtrack that’s 90% glockenspiel, and forced, peripheral attempts to appear literate, and will guarantee you leave the theater unhappy. I’m pretty sure my mother has seen every one of these films.

Dour Indie Dramedies were something of a dying breed in 2007– Rocket Science and August’s Margot at the Wedding are the only others I can think of, but only in The Savages do we get the full package, as it contains all the aforementioned stereotypical traits, plus main characters who are writers, because of course they are.

I should mention that there’s nothing technically wrong with this movie. The titular Savages, aspiring playwright Wendy (Laura Linney) and theatre professor John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), hear news that their estranged and abusive father Lenny (Philip Bosco) has recently lost his live-in girlfriend and is suffering from dementia. After retrieving Lenny from Arizona and placing him in a nursing home near John’s college in Buffalo, Wendy and John decide to stay together until the New Year, in the hope that their mutual encouragement will get John to finish his book on Bertolt Brecht and Wendy can finish writing a play based on their childhood.

But that’s it. John is blunt and Wendy is self-absorbed, and they get along until they don’t. The performances are good. It’s just uninteresting and uncinematic and depressing. The Savages actually got rave reviews and a couple of Oscar noms, but there are a thousand movies just like this one, and I don’t need to see any more.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
9/11 is invoked. Analogies are made to the short-lived color-coded terror alert system. “We’re in yellow right now, so we should just be aware.” Wendy watches an Oxi-Clean commercial. John and Wendy engage in meaningful abuse of prescription painkillers and antidepressants.

Additional Notes
There’s a scene where Lenny holds a screening of The Jazz Singer. For some reason, Lenny starts thinking the movie is about him. Much weirder to me is that college-educated intellectuals John and Wendy are surprised by the appearance of blackface at the end. Isn’t one of you a professor of theatre?

Another weird thing: everyone in this movie, set and filmed in 2007, apparently owns an ancient 1980s-model tube TV set.

How Did It Do?
The Savages only made $9.6 million against a $9 million budget. Dour Indie Dramedies had rarely been financially successful, but continued to be made basically because they were easy to write and cheap to produce, Sundance judges loved them, and with enough talent, you could get some awards buzz– as The Savages did, earning an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, making multiple end-of-year top ten lists, and netting Oscar Nominations for Best Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay. But the writing was on the wall for this subgenre, and Tamara Jenkins notably never wrote or directed a film again.

Next Time: Teeth