Sunday, February 15, 2009

Charlie Wilson's War

Began to watch Tropic Thunder last night but gave up fairly quickly. Apart from being schoolboy gross and full of foul language, it just wasn’t engaging – at least for us. Fortunately I’d got it out as my introductory ‘free’ New Release from Video Ezy after finding that the Civic Video had finally closed. Not surprising; it’s looked very unwell for some time.
I’d bought a couple of other DVDs, as it happened, one of which was Charlie Wilson’s War, which turned out to be a trifle odd also, but nowhere near as odd as its predecessor. For one thing, it may have been that Tom Hanks was playing a loose-living middle-aged Congressman with a penchant for whisky. I’ve often found that certain stars just don’t come across well when they play too far away from their usual screen persona. Most of them have screen personas that are broad enough to encompass a fair range, but when they step out of that and play the opposite type of character for instance, it generally doesn’t work – in my mind.
Denzil Washington is a prime example. He’s made a few films where he’s played against type, and, because in the audience’s mind he’s a man with integrity and heart and warmth and compassion, we just don’t believe him when he tries to play someone who’s really bad.
Can you imagine Danny de Vito playing any sort of hero or heroic character? Unlikely to succeed, and wisely he’s stuck to his conniving, grubby-minded characters. Gene Hackman, even when playing the hero, will be fairly flawed, but he seems to have found his niche in playing characters that are untrustworthy, venal, and ruthless. Jack Nicholson has managed to bring off a few characters that are sympathetic, but it takes some doing. He has to bring the audience around to ‘his way of thinking’ as it were. (About Schmidtt is an example.)
So to return to Tom Hanks. Tom will not easily play an out and out villain. Offhand, I can’t remember him doing so. He’s been fairly rough-edged a few times, but his trademark ‘innocence’ is what he does really well. Charlie Wilson isn’t innocent. He has integrity, but it’s very mixed, and the opening scene in the movie, with him in a spa pool with several other naked people, seems uncomfortable for Hanks.
However, once we get used to Hanks in this role, the film is well worth watching. Julia Roberts makes a brief appearance early in the piece and then vanishes for a good deal of the movie, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who knows his place in movies as a wild man character, whether he’s playing good or bad) takes up the rest of the slack.
If the film wasn’t based on a true story we’d be unlikely to believe it, but since it apparently is, we have to assume that the scriptwriters haven’t played too fast and loose with the truth.
I said the movie was worth watching, nevertheless, it doesn’t seem well constructed for all that. There are several wonderful individual scenes (particularly Hoffman’s first appearance, and also his first encounter with Hanks), and the piece is uniformly well-acted, and directed, but there isn’t much suspense. It’s almost a forgone conclusion that Charlie Wilson will get his way and ‘save’ Afghanistan from the Russians. Along with Hoffman he’s a renegade who happens to be invisible enough in Congress not to cause huge anti-waves when he sets about supplying arms to the beleaguered country. And while the characters are well-drawn up to a point, I don’t know that I entirely believe in them. There were plenty of flamboyant characters in West Wing, for example, but they worked better than Charlie Wilson does, and both Hoffman and Roberts seem to be playing people who do their own thing and get away with it without a snub from anyone. Interestingly enough, Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay. It has plenty of his trademarks: snappy dialogue, smart one-liners that fit the scene, good scene construction. It’s just the overall effect that doesn’t quite hold. Maybe Sorkin needed a sub-plot to offset the main story, as he so often did in the TV series. Here he’s denied that.
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