Thursday, January 03, 2008

MMM...good movies!

Maggie says:
Charlie Wilson's War is, without question, great fun to watch. The Aaron Sorkin script is classic Aaron Sorkin, and that's okay by me: the dialogue is biting, quick, smart, and funny. The performances are great - I actually enjoyed Tom Hanks, something I wasn't sure I'd ever say again. And Julia Roberts in great playing a woman whose entire life was an over-the-top performance anyway. It works. Amy Adams is fantastic, and Philip Seymour Hoffman once again proves he's the best character actor alive. He's just brilliant. '80s excess is everywhere. The film is shot well, edited well, and except for an overly sweeping score that didn't quite fit the sarcastic bite of the film, I have nothing bad to say about its execution at all. Nicely done.

The problem for me is bigger than the mechanics of the film: I disagree with everything the story is about. Maybe I just needed to take it less seriously. Maybe I needed to stop fast-forwarding twenty years. Maybe I needed to stop thinking about our own culpability. Maybe I needed to stop using what I know to filter the story, and instead pretend I know nothing. But despite all this, I really did have fun watching it, and I really did enjoy it. And yet...

The movie would like us to cheer as formerly defenseless Afghans use American missiles to shoot down carefree, cruel Russian helicopter pilots who are girlfriend-bashing while "hunting" for civilians from the air. We're supposed to think it's awesome that we're arming a refugee camp, that weapons are the answer to everything, and that weapons experts and secret operations saved a small, stable, and innocent nation from evil Communist takeover. The subtitle here is "Charlie Wilson: Morally Conflicted about Drugs and Women, but Damn Charming, and Right on Communism and Weapons!" In that land of black and white, more killing is a good thing. Our nation is powerful and free and courageous and on the right side of God, dammit!

Of course, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols are too smart to actually believe that. They're in on the joke, in classic "we're smarter than you" fashion. Some of us moviegoers will see that all the fanfare is simply empty hype, but I don't think everyone will. By presenting the follies of congressional manipulations and covert actions in foreign lands, there is an unspoken subtext of how unnatural those acts are. Of course Charlie Wilson looks ridiculous in Afghani garb. Of course the fantastically manipulative Joanne Herring is going to exploit Christian imagery at just the right time. Of course Charlie Wilson will understand far too late that because he can't secretly funnel money to Afghanistan for the long-term, he's causing more problems than ever existed. Of course the final budget committee hearing shows that it's all a game to our elected officials - actions are never real, and consequences take place after the decision-makers are retired anyway, so they don't really care. But none of this is explicit - these truths are told in long pauses, in what's behind the eyes, and in the empty spaces. And what's more, they're not just told silently, they're told in less than 1% of the scenes in a movie filled with "patriotic," pro-war cheering.

The average moviegoer - such as two confused women I overheard in the bathroom post-movie - don't get this. For that kind of moviegoer, there are only two telling scenes that matter, and they're quick enough to be missed: first, when Hoffman's CIA agent tells Charlie Wilson that more problems are coming down the pike, that now that weapons are there, "the crazies are rolling in." And second, the movie closes with a quote from Charlie Wilson about how "glorious" the lead-up was, but how "we fucked up the endgame." Roll credits.

My too-serious self wants more, but I want it lightly, because that light touch carried through to an epilogue is what could have made this is a damn brilliant film. I want the same biting fun that shows us how awesome it is to engineer a $1 billion covert CIA operation in Afghanistan to also demonstrate the high drama and folly of it all falling apart. I don't want tedium and tons of emotion and obvious finger-pointing to 9/11; that's not what I mean. This movie is far better than the current Iraq-related films that all feel much too obvious, that pander too much to a tedious moral high-ground. That's not what I'm talking about.

Many people who have seen or will see this film may not know very much at all about the dark channels our country has traveled, or about the backstory the mainstream press doesn't tell us when the "real" news breaks. So on their behalf, I ask this: if those moviegoers can appreciate the rise and fall of Charlie Wilson's cocaine scandal in a Las Vegas hotel room - all the messy consequences, all the truth v. heresay, all the implications - might they not also grasp some "fall" to the rise of arming Afghanistan?

I want another fifteen minutes in this film - just fifteen minutes! - that in the same deft, light handling that the rest of the film so nicely benefits from, connects a few more dots for folks to underscore the real problems of what we were doing there. I want a little more than "we fucked up the endgame." Tell us how and why, but do it well. Then close the movie with some simple facts on the screen that bring us into the present: that the "crazies" who rolled in after we armed the country were the Taliban we'd later fight against, that the weapons we paid for were later used to perpetrate crimes against innocent civilians and American soldiers, that one of Charlie Wilson's allies there would later be hunted down by the U.S. as a major Al Qaeda operative. Etc.

Then roll the credits.