The Private War of Representative Wilson

Both Frank Tashlin and Mike Nichols ended their careers with films about, one might say, private wars, but there the resemblance more or less ends. Though, if Bob Hope in THE PRIVATE NAVY OF SGT. O’FARRELL and Tom Hanks in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR were to trade places, I don’t know how much difference it would make.

The Nichols film makes for an interesting capper. Scripted by Aaron Sorkin, who always does these things, it hashes up an unruly true story into a palatable dramatic shape. The REAL story buried inside the true one is that Wilson’s covert funding of Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invaders eventually led to the Taliban, and a US invasion which we’re still dealing with today. The film does its best to acknowledge that without admitting any culpability on the part of its protagonist, which is an impossible balancing act. And when the movie denounces the immorality of funding the mujahideen just enough to make the USSR waste resources fighting them, without giving them enough support to win, it has to kind of ignore the fact that this policy gave us Glasnost, whereas Charlie Wilson’s policy gave us… some very bad things indeed.

What else is bad? Oh yes, the warnography, which consists of strange montages of expensive battle reenactment and cheap stock footage, scored by Thomas Newton Howard with militaristic romanticism. Most of this is just montage stuff, presumably thrown in to stop this just being talk, but the talk is what’s good about it. One little scene showing Russian pilots discussing their sleazy love lives while strafing women and kids, before being heroically taken out of the skies by Wilson’s freshly-supplied rocket launchers would be enough to make you sick were it not immediately followed by a tight closeup of Amy Adams’ tightly-skirted ass, which makes things even worse, but somehow I can’t bring myself to blow chunks while looking at Amy Adams’ ass. But it’s probably an all-time career low in taste for Sorkin and Nichols.

   

When the film is dealing with dialogue, it’s on EXTREMELY sure footing, though. Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman are terrific in slightly different modes, and we get great scenes with them and Om Puri and then Ken Stott. Ken Stott as an Israeli? Is it the thing about Scotsmen and Jews both being mean? Whatever, when a terrific Brit character actor turns up completely by surprise, we rejoice.

As this is a political drama, this is fairly male-dominated. Among the females being dominated are Adams, gazing worshipfully at Hanks, and Emily Blunt. Julia Roberts is sexualized, but in charge. Her extraordinary makeup impressed Fiona, if it’s not historically correct for the true-life character, then it’s an inspired invention.

“She’s doing her eyelashes like Audrey Hepburn! And those weird-painted on shadows around her eyelids…” It’s the Caligari approach to cosmetics.

Nichols sure sense of casting and timing is undiminished in all the scenes of scheming and arguing. His compositional sense is less pleasing since he stopped working with Harold Michelson on storyboards, and his sense of structure is diminished without Sam O’Steen as editor — though I’m not sure whether executive interference had something to do with the dumb action scenes and the choppy transitions in the last third. But what you get in this film is just-passable coverage assembled with incredible zip into scenes which showcase terrific actors speaking terrific words. And that’s somewhat rare today, as it was ten years ago when this thing came out and I apparently didn’t bother to see it.

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5 Responses to “The Private War of Representative Wilson”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    “Warnography,” indeed. If, as it’s been alleged, Greta Garbo responded to the end of LA BELLE ET LA BETE with “Give me back my beast!”, I responded to CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR with “Give me CATCH-22!”

  2. I seem to recall hearing that the filmmakers were interested in exploring how a naive interventionist gave rise to the Taliban, but Hanks was uncomfortable with all that so it’s hinted once, right at the end, Hanks clearly liked the idea of playing a warm character with big human flaws who nevertheless wins a big secret campaign, like Oskar Schindler.

  3. It would make an idea Double Feature with “Ishtar”

  4. Yes! Although it winds up being kind of on the opposite side of the political spectrum, as if the Grodin character were the hero of Ishtar.

  5. That’s why they would be so interesting together: Mike and Elaine at loggerheads.

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