January 9, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (Nichols, 2007)

Charlie Wilson's War is a product that looks like an Oscar contender, smells like and Oscar contender, and has the pedigree of an Oscar contender, but once finally revealed, is nothing more than nicely polished fluff. Let me clarify that in no way do I abhor Mike Nichols' film. It's just that any talk of this film as one of the year's best is quite baffling to me. There is certainly much to enjoy. Yet, there is something about Nichols' film, its inherent simplicity, the pandering nature of the entire exercise, that I can't quite get past.

This is pop history, nothing more, nothing less. A simplistic exploration of a complex period of recent US history that nevertheless feels strangely pretend. Too refined to be considered proper farce, the film also lacks the subversiveness and vitriolic energy that the best satire requires. And Nichols' filmmaking, while polished and professional, feels strangely hollow. Gone is his feel for the contours of human behavior, and the vitality, that marked much of his early work. So while Sorkin's script crackles and pops in all the right places (done exceptional service by Hoffman's perfectly mannered and hilarious turn as CIA man Gust Avrakotos), it does so in the service of nothing particularly meaningful. Unless of course, you are the type who would confuse lazy, obvious, finger-pointing, for something clever and meaningful.

In the end, when the entire aftermath of Wilson's clandestine campaign is reduced to a single minutes long scene in a conference room (and capped by a punchline quote), it becomes clear what Nichols' real intentions are. Charlie Wilson's War is a breezy comedy that one can enjoy for a brisk 97 minutes and forget nearly as quickly. For truly inspired satire, check out Nichols' Catch-22 instead.


Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

You're right about the
"pandering"--with the title character constantly on-set for fact-checking purposes, it seems like the only possible goal of the work is ego-stroking--but what makes you think they were aiming for satire?
(That's not a rhetorical question.)

R.A. Naing said...

Nichols has mined the satirical vein before in his career, in "Catch-22" and "Primary Colors" and I don't see "Charlie Wilson's War" as being any different (albeit certainly less successful than Catch-22). Nichols holds up the success and ultimate failure of Charlie Wilson's campaign in Afghanistan against our current political situation, and contemporary American foreign policy in general, and he achieves this primarily through the use of ironic characters (a playboy Congressman and a bumbling, pot-bellied, foul mouthed CIA operative) and witty dialogue. Except here, the veneer of humor isn't aimed at the vices and stupidity of specific characters, but rather, at the vices and stupidity of an entire nation.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Point well-taken. Perhaps because of the sincerity of the title character (if not some of the others) lead me to believe that satire wasn't the organizing principle here.