Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"Charlie Wilson" wages campaign of sharp satire

Charlie Wilson: "Do you drink?"
Gust Avrakotos: "God yeah."

I've waited all year for a movie that manages to properly mix its politics with pure entertainment, and after suffering through "Lions for Lambs," "In the Valley of Elah" and other earnest offerings, Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin have finally come through with the right stuff.

Most of the complaints I've heard about this Washington politico-comedy is that it soft pedals the politics in the cause of poking fun at D.C. culture, but after watching it I just have one question for these critics: Just how spoon fed do you really need your politics to be? 'Cause if you look even an inch below the surface of this one there's indeed a whole lot going on.

But I guess a word or two about the plot might be in order first, since many, many more people turned out to watch those damn Chipmunks squawk than tuned in for this in week one. Tom Hanks (heard of him?) plays Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, a conservative Democrat who is perfectly happy to just party his way through life until he gets fixated on the Muhjadeen's struggle to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan. He gets assists from Philip Seymour Hoffman as beaten-down CIA agent Gust Avrakotos and Julia Roberts as wealthy Houston socialite Joanne Herring. Luckily, Nichols and Sorkin see the pure ludicrousness of waging the cold war from Texas, and they play this out as a broad but often sharp satire.

Going in, there were two people that had me worried about this one, Mr. Hanks and Mr. Sorkin. I know Hanks is beloved by many, many people, and I concede that he is a great actor, but he's usually just so smug that I want to smack him over and over until he just shuts up. Here, however, he plays Wilson like the "Bachelor Party" player he was, and it just works. And, more importantly, he gets out of the way when, about 15 minutes in or so, Hoffman arrives to deliver his first great performance of 2007 (though I think "The Savages," when I finally get to see it, will certainly be another one.) Roberts is here too, of course, as is delightful Amy Adams as Wilson's top aide, but they're really given little to do.

It's the arrival of Hoffman's Avrakotos in Wilson's office that just sets the tone of this flick perfectly. It verges on bedroom farce as Wilson's aides, busty broads all, of course, keep breaking into his first meeting with Avrakotos to prep him to face charges that he snorted cocaine while hanging out with strippers in Las Vegas. It's timed just right to make you laugh out loud.

And after the debacle that was "Studio 60," I was more than a little worried that Sorkin had lost his touch too. I really enjoyed the first three episodes of that NBC single-season show, but after that it seemed like he let his anger at the religious right just consume him and cloud his vision beyond the ability to deliver anything even mildly entertaining. Thankfully, "Charlie Wilson's War" is much more "West Wing" than "Studio 60," and it shows that Sorkin still has a real ear for the way things work in our nation's capitol (where I worked, briefly, as an intern for Maryland's U.S. Senator from the great city of Baltimore, Barbara Mikulski.)

There comes a moment near the end of "Charlie Wilson's War" when I was sure things were going to turn for the much worse and we were gonna be pounded over the head with an ending that assumed we were unable to absorb any of the points that were so deftly made thus far. It starts with Hanks adapting one of the expressions that just make my blood curdle, that misty-eyed look that makes you sure he's about to break into some kind of self-righteous speech about what we should all think.

But then Sorkin and Nichols pull back from the brink. It turns out that, thankfully, Charlie is just drunk, and we're left to, mostly, draw our own parallels between his personal crusade and what's going on in the world today.

With three winners in a row ("Walk Hard," "Sweeney Todd" and now this), it's just been a really fun week to go to the movies. I'm hoping that continues today with "The Great Debaters," but frankly fearing that might just be way too earnest for my taste. Tune in tomorrow to find out, and enjoy every minute of your merry Christmas! Peace out.


J. Marquis said...

I'm sure Hoffman is good in this movie and "The Savages" but I'm willing to bet money you're going to consider "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" his best work of 2007.

By the way, Happy Holidays!

Reel Fanatic said...

I've already seen "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," Mr. Marquis, and though I wanted to like it I just couldn't get into it despite all the stars involved .. it just all seemed to be so familiar, and frankly, more than a bit tired

James said...

I loved this movie (just saw it) and I thought the inter-play between Hanks and Hoffman was brilliant. It made the movie in my opinion.

I'm a big, BIG Hoffman fan.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm a huge fan myself, James, but I have to say I don't think he should have won the Academy Award for "Truman" .. It was a truly sensational performance, but no one put in a better one that year than Terrence Howard in "Hustle & Flow," a movie which just keeps getting better and better with subsequent viewings

DCMovieGirl said...

Excellent review!

My thoughts are on par with yours, but I have to admit I've been more than a little lazy about writing them lately. :)

I think was surprisingly good, but it's not something I'd ever see again.

...I would watch the Hoffman confrontation scene on youtube, though.

James said...

I agree about "Truman" and Terrence Howard deserving it more.

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