Doodad Kind of Town

"Charlie Wilson’s War"
December 27, 2007, 7:22 pm
Filed under: Mike Nichols

I wanted to like “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but mostly it just made me uneasy.

With Mike Nichols in the director’s chair, and Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead roles, I knew I was in for some slick, sophisticated, well-acted entertainment. But it left a distinctly sour taste in my mouth afterwards.

Wilson was the Texas congressman who obtained funding for a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan – a war that the Afghan mujahideen, equipped with American-supplied weapons and training, eventually won. It led directly to the end of the cold war and the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which most people would agree were desirable outcomes in the short run. But six years after 9/11, we all know to what end those weapons and training were eventually applied. As the quote from Wilson which is framed in the film’s final shot reminds us: “We fucked up the endgame.”

Tom Hanks plays Wilson with a blend of rascally charm and soulful conviction. Wilson was a boozer and a ladies’ man (he explains the universal comeliness of his congressional staff thus: “You can teach ’em to type, but you can’t teach ’em how to grow tits”), but also a dedicated liberal of genuine political conscience. The opening scene, in which Wilson watches Dan Rather’s coverage of Afghanistan intently while soaking in a Vegas hot tub with three strippers, establishes Wilson’s moral ambiguity with clever economy.

Julia Roberts plays Joanne Herring, a wealthy, passionately anti-communist Texas divorcee who goads Wilson into staging a covert war through an expert application of sexual wiles and tough-minded calculation. Like Wilson, she’s also a bundle of contradictions; a fervent Christian, she is nonetheless all too willing to take Charlie to bed or indulge in a Bombay martini or two.

And that points to what I like most about “Charlie Wilson’s War” – the notion that people can embrace passionate political and spiritual ideals even as they take unapologetic pleasure in the wordly pleasures of sex and spirits. In a film season full of dogged good intentions and boring, over-earnest do-gooders, the randy good spirits of this film’s leading characters are blessedly welcome.

Rounding out the trio of protagonists is Philip Seymour Hoffman as rogue CIA agent Gus Avrakotos. His coarse, pugnacious refusal to suffer fools gladly has tarnished his career at the agency. Approached by Wilson, he sees a chance to actually accomplish something in the fight against the Soviets – a fight to which the American government has given little more than lip service at film’s starting point in 1980.

It almost goes without saying that all the actors are great; Nichols nearly always leads his actors to deliver award-worthy work. Hanks has both the easy charm and the inner conviction to fully embody the complexities of Charlie Wilson, and his performance both grounds and enlivens the film. Hoffman perfectly captures all the nuances of a frustrated outsider who is dying to get into the heat of a real fight. For what it’s worth, I’ve never been a member of the Julia Roberts fan club. (For years, it seemed her acting skills consisted entirely of defiantly tossing her wild auburn mane while fixing the nearest male with her patented “I’m tough, yet vulnerable” gaze.) But Nichols coaxed out one of her least predictable performances in the otherwise loathsome “Closer” a few years back, and he works magic again with Roberts on this outing. She sinks her teeth into the role of Texan grand dame with dazzling conviction. Now that Roberts is 40 – and thus past the hair-tossing phase of her career – I’m looking forward to more work from her at this level.

It also goes without saying that Nichols is most adept at handling scenes with crisp, smart, political dialogue, and there are plenty of those in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Pay attention, though, as some of these conversations are so heavy on background information as to be challenging to follow. In particular, an early scene in which Charlie soaks in the tub as Joanne briefs him on the Afghanistan situation while primping in front of a makeup mirror is hard to watch; she delivers complicated exposition while using the point of an open safety pin to separate her freshly mascaraed lashes. I guarantee you will not hear a word she’s saying, because your brain will be too busy screaming “JESUS! She’s going to stab herself in the eye with that thing!!!”

Nichols is far less assured in scenes that ought to have emotional wallop, but don’t. Wilson is converted to the Afghan’s cause after spending day in one of their refugee camps, but these scenes of wounded children and grieving mothers feel perfunctory and detached. Compassionate, heart-wrenching material has never been Nichols’ forte, and “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a bit poorer for that deficiency.

The shadow of 9/11 hangs low and dark over “Charlie Wilson’s War,” undercutting whatever sense of excitement and purpose its characters may have by subtly invoking our queasy knowledge of what would come later. It was especially uncomfortable to see this film, as I did, on the same morning that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan. (There is a scene in which Pakistan’s then-prime minister – who killed Bhutto’s father in a political coup years earlier – is honored at a Houston luncheon.) And even though screenwriter Aaron Sorkin winds up with a few quick scenes that underscore the ambiguity of Wilson’s victory, you still come away from the film a little confused. Those final scenes feel hastily tacked on to a story that mostly celebrates its larger-than-life characters as heroes.

Thoughts on the AFI Life Achievement Award
November 28, 2007, 10:30 pm
Filed under: Mike Nichols, Woody Allen

It won’t happen till June, but the American Film Institute is giving its next Lifetime Achievement award to Warren Beatty. That’s certainly fitting enough – Beatty has a distinguished career of over 40 years as an actor, director, screenwriter and producer.

But looking over the list of those who have received the honor in the last 35 years (the first award was bestowed to John Ford in 1973), I felt some disappointment. (See the complete list here.)

The AFI never got around to honoring many of the deserving film artists before they shuffled off this mortal coil. Among those passed over (all of whom were still alive when the awards were started): Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Altman, John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant. (Although I recall hearing or reading somewhere that Grant was offered the award, but declined it. Something about being embarrassed by the idea of a staged tribute.)

The criteria for the Lifetime Achievement award are that”the recipient should be one whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.” In 1993, the criteria was expanded to include “individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished. “

Well, that explains Tom Hanks. He got the award in 2002, at the ripe old age of 47 (!) Speaking as 47-year-old myself, there is no freakin’ way that a 47-year-old needs any damn lifetime achievement award! Don’t get me wrong – Tom Hanks is a legend in his own time – but that award could easily have waited another 20 years. Ditto Steven’s Spielberg’s award in 1995. At a mere 49, and with “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich,” and God knows what else still ahead of him, he was no candidate for lifetime achievement honors either.

Of course, it could be a very engrossing parlor game for movie buffs to pick their own Lifetime Achievement winners (or quibble with the existing list – and I think I can make a pretty strong case against the inclusion of Sean Connery, the 2006 honoree). In that spirit, I hereby submit my highly personal shortlist for the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement awards. I don’t believe any one of them is under 65.

1. Shirley MacLaine – In a career than spans over 50 years, Shirley has grown up on screen from a kooky, red-haired gamine to a salty-tongued grandma; she’s never once given a bad or boring performance in the process. She’s worked with the greats and the near greats, from Jack Lemmon to the Rat Pack, from Alfred Hitchcock to Billy Wilder to Bob Fosse. Her roles in “The Apartment,” “Some Came Running,” “Irma La Douce,” “Sweet Charity,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Postcards from the Edge” and many others are classic. And that’s just in this lifetime! She’s still a little kooky, but she’s formidable – and, at 74, she’s due for the honor.

2. Stanley Donen – He was choreographing MGM musicals when he was barely out of his teens. Before he was 30, he’d revolutionized the film musical, directing “On the Town,” “Royal Wedding” (where he devised a way to make Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling) and “Singin’ in the Rain” – after 55 years, still the greatest movie musical of all time. His subsequent career included classic romantic comedies like “Charade,” “Indiscreet,” and “Two for the Road.” Donen is 83 and hasn’t made a theatrical release in over 25 years – but on the basis of his early career alone, he belongs in this pantheon.

3. Mike Nichols –
I can’t think of another director whose films are so consistently smart, sharp and uniformly well-acted. With a 41-year career that includes “The Graduate,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” and the brilliant television adaptations of “Wit” and “Angels in America,” 75-year old Nichols is way overdue for this honor.

4. Francis Ford Coppola – Yes, you read that right. I scanned the list several times, and he’s not on it. And yes, most of his fellow seventies wunderkind directors are there (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese). If he’d only made the first two “Godfather” movies and “Apocalypse Now,” he’d still belong on the list, and at 68, he’s certainly old enough to qualify.

5. Jane Fonda – Ok, she’s GOT to be on a shortlist somewhere. In one career, she’s gone from cute comic ingenue (“Barefoot in the Park,” “Cat Ballou”) to sex kitten (“Barbarella”) to impressive serious actress (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” “Klute,” “Julia,” “On Golden Pond”) back to comedy (“Nine to Five” and recently, unfortunately, “Monster in Law” and “Georgia Rule”)- and covered everything in between. Not to mention, if she gets the honor, it’ll be the first father-daughter dual win in the award’s history (pop Henry Fonda won in 1978).

6. Robert Redford – And he’s already got to be on the shortlist, too. I mean, c’mon! His classic acting roles (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Way We Were,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “All the President’s Men,” “Out of Africa,” “The Natural”) and distinguished directing efforts (“Ordinary People,” “Quiz Show,” “A River Runs Through It”) would be enough to earn him the honor. But he also founded the Sundance Institute for independent filmmaker, which already got him an honorary Oscar in 2002. Incidentally, he’s a little crinklier, but still cute at 71.

7. Woody Allen – Ok, I saved my most questionable choice for last. His work certainly has advanced the art of film, and most of his pre-1989 output has indeed withstood the test of time. (It’s not like nobody on the actual winners’ list has any clunkers on their resume.) In my mind, just the combination of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” qualify the Woodman for lifetime achievement honors.

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