Monday, July 14, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

2007, US, directed by Mike Nichols

The storytelling style of Charlie Wilson's War is of a piece with the man whose work it purports to depict, a Texan good old boy who happens to be a liberal Democrat rather than a Republican, and whose hedonistic ways seem tailor-made for a good Congressional scandal (it's hard to imagine him surviving long in the era of the Internet, and perhaps that's a shame). As such, it's a self-consciously rollicking good time which plays fast and loose with the facts, implying essentially that we owe Charlie Wilson for the end of the Cold War (and, less nobly, the arming of Afghanistan). The movie makes use of old mythologies of the west, specifically that of the straight-shooter out to set things right and save the oppressed - and as such radically simplifies the byways of Washington politics.

Some of those simplifications come with the territory of cinema, which often seems better suited to telling tales of individual action rather than collective decision-making. While Nichols and his scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, a man utterly captivated by the corridors of Washington power, make occasional attempts to paint in some of the background complexities, such as in a visit to Pakistan, the film's breezy pacing (not always a strength of Nichols's film work) and frequently comic tone - particularly in one extended sequence where Wilson attempts to fend off a breaking scandal while discussing the details of a CIA operation - generally leave little room for shades of grey. If it were all fictional, this probably wouldn't seem of great note, but the fact that such shenanigans take place against a backdrop of very real conflict is sometimes discomfiting. On the plus side, Tom Hanks, playing a less squeaky-clean character than usual, is surprisingly strong as Wilson, a political player if ever there was one, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding as his blunt CIA contact, always ready to cut to the chase.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States