Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Charlie Wilson's War

With the teevee show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, writer Aaron Sorkin apparently thought to establish himself as one of the great genius writers of teevee history. Or, at least, that's how it felt to watch that show, with its constant and open subtext of "Teevee sucks, but luckily there's a genius writer on hand to save it!" Studio 60 was quite the disappointing effort, I discovered; not just because the show managed to basically turn a fascinating premise into a fairly boring show, but because it also exposed Aaron Sorkin as being a bag-of-tricks kind of writer. So when I rented the latest Sorkin-scripted effort, the movie Charlie Wilson's War, I hoped that it would exhibit a return by Sorkin to his best days when he was writing the early seasons of The West Wing or the movie The American President. And yes, Charlie Wilson's War is a step in that direction, but I don't think it got all the way there.

Charlie Wilson's War tells a true story many don't know anything about. A Congressman named Charlie Wilson learns of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and decides to use his power as a Congressman to increase the CIA's budget to fund the Mujahaddin resistance fighters. However, he soon learns that the CIA's ability to help the Majahaddin is almost nonexistent because the Soviet weapons are so vastly superior to anything the Afghans have, so Wilson uses a number of contacts he knows to start to broker a clandestine operation where the US will fund the sale of Israeli weapons to the Afghans. (Somehow Pakistan is involved too, although I lost a bit of sight of the particulars.) It is, apparently, one of the largest clandestine operations in US history, if not the largest, and it played a great role in the Afghan defeat of the Soviet forces (with said defeat later being a major factor in the Soviet Union's collapse).

This is the kind of story Aaron Sorkin is actually ideally suited to write. It's got tons of inner details that he can use to create those long-winded speeches his characters always have; like so many episodes of The West Wing, the characters here are always able to rattle off the top of their heads the exact numbers of billions of dollars being spent on various operations, or the exact specifications of the Soviet helicopters that the Afghans are trying to fight off with World War I-era rifles, and so on. And sure enough, the characters in this movie have one Sorkin-esque speech after another.

Of course, that's the typical problem with a Sorkin script: all of the characters tend to talk like every other character, so the film's success hinges on whether we enjoy listening to these actors deliver their Sorkin-esque speeches. For the most part, the movie works in this regard. Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson strikes a nicely laconic tone of the kind of intelligence to tends to take people by surprise; Julia Roberts stars as the far-right-wing Texas oil woman who becomes one of Charlie Wilson's key contacts. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the third standout in the cast as Wilson's CIA contact, a man who is bitter and burned out and who yet still rises to the occasion to put together one of the CIA's great triumphs. The supporting cast is also strong: Amy Adams as Wilson's personal aide; Ned Beatty as a Congressional chair; and so on.

One reason that Sorkin's rapid-fire speechifying in his scripts tends to work better in movies than on teevee is, I think, the fact that movies aren't rigidly adherent to the concerns of running time, so actors don't have to recite their speeches as quickly as humanly possible, as they so frequently were on The West Wing and, in even more pronounced fashion, Studio 60. This allows the actors to find their own cadences, which helps mask the fact that Sorkin writes everybody's dialog the same way.

And there are also some real gems in that dialog, to be sure. After the President of Pakistan tells Charlie Wilson that he has some character problems (Wilson has just, among other things, tried to order a whiskey in the Pakistani President's palace), Wilson complains "I've just been told that I have character problems by a guy who killed his predecessor in a military coup." And later on, when he's trying to get the Pakistani president on board with his plan to supply the Afghan fighters with Israeli weapons, the Pakistani president says something like "For this to work, the world can never know that Pakistan and Israel worked together. We must appear to be mortal enemies." Wilson responds, "Yeah, I don't think that's gonna be a tough sell." Moments like these are offset by odd, almost slapsticky moments in which Charlie Wilson is having two conversations at once and for some reason has to keep shoving one interlocutor out of his office so he can talk to the other, or moments when characters like the wealthy Houston socialite can recite the contents of some House appropriations bill right down to the number of millions being on spent on this instead of that. Mostly, Sorkin's scripts these days don't give the impression that characters are talking; instead, they're reciting.

I also think that the movie doesn't take long enough for its subject matter. This is a big and fascinating story, and yet the movie seems to breeze by it all very quickly. We don't get much of a sense of what kind of man Charlie Wilson is, other than a womanizer and a heavy drinker. In the opening scene, Wilson is captivated when he sees that Dan Rather is on location on the CBS news, wearing a turban somewhere; Wilson obsesses over this point, even though at the time he's sitting in a hot tub next to three beautiful and naked women. Why is Wilson fascinated by this? We're told that he's not much of a Congressman ("Your chief legislative achievement in six terms is getting re-elected five times"), but we don't get much sense of how he's able to wheel-and-deal his way to getting what he wants. And the film doesn't tell us anything at all of what became of the principles of the story after this story ended, choosing instead to pay very brief lip service to the fact that if the US had paid greater attention to Afghan rebuilding after the end of the Soviet occupation, recent history might not have been so dominated by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

Charlie Wilson's War is a slick and entertaining movie. But it feels a bit slighter than it should, played for more laughs than its story deserves, and ultimately, I didn't feel that I'd been told a story so much as had one suggested to me. This subject matter deserved a telling with more gravity than this.


JPDeni said...

Yeah. I felt pretty much the same way. There was a lot to enjoy about Charlie Wilson's War, but there wasn't enough. It definitely left me wanting more.

Right with you on Studio 60, etc. I really wanted to like it, but it was just a bit too self-congratulatory.

Roger Owen Green said...

I knew that Charlie Wilson's War was somehow unfocused when you see Tom Hanks with naked women and it's boring. I don't think the movie moves at all until Hoffman hits the screen.