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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 29, 2007

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Sometimes, covert ops are just like a box of chocolates

By Dennis Hartley

Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of the new film “Charlie Wilson’s War”, in which the title character, a Texas congressman (played in full Gumpian southern-drawl mode by Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the, er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and wooly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin provides the smart, snappy dialog for high-class director Mike Nichols’ latest foray into political satire, a genre he hasn’t dabbled in since his excellent 1998 film “Primary Colors”. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as a bit of a cakewalk, because it definitely falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party, but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into dropping her skirt. So how did this whiskey quaffing poon hound circumvent the official U.S. government foreign policy of the time (mid to late 1980s) and help the Mujahideen rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?

He did it with a little help from his friends- a coterie of strange bedfellows including an Israeli arms dealer, a belly-dancing girlfriend, high-ranking officials in Egypt and Pakistan, a misanthropic but handily resourceful CIA operative, and “the sixth-richest woman in Texas”, who also happened to be a fervent anti-communist. It’s quite the tale.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman continues his nearly perfect track record of stealing just about every film he appears in. He plays the aforementioned CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos with much aplomb. His character is less than diplomatic in the personality department; he becomes a pariah at the Agency after telling his department head to fuck off once or twice (and always within earshot of colleagues). Through serendipitous circumstance, Gust falls in league with Wilson and one of his lady friends, a wealthy socialite named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, bearing a spooky resemblance to Joan Rivers).

Once united, the three form a sort of political “X-Men” team; each one has their own unique “special power” to bring to the table. Joanne has influence with highly-placed Middle East officials, and can set up meetings; Charlie can talk just about anybody into anything; and Gust can get just about “anything” done, especially if it involves cutting corners and, uh, bypassing the “middleman” if you will. Once Joanne lures powerful congressman Doc Long (the wonderful Ned Beatty) on board, the deal is sealed.

The film doesn’t deviate too much from the facts laid out in the book by George Crile; despite some inherent elements of political satire, it’s a fairly straightforward rendering. What is most interesting to me is what they left out; especially after viewing “The True Story of Charlie Wilson”, a documentary currently airing on the History Channel (check your listings). One incident in particular, which involved a private arms dealer “accidentally” blowing up a D.C. gas station (oops!) on his way to a meeting with Wilson and Avrakotos, seems like it would have been a no-brainer for the movie (maybe some legal issues involved, perhaps?) The History Channel documentary also recalls Wilson’s involvement with a (non-injury) hit and run accident that occurred on the eve of one of his most crucial Middle-Eastern junkets (the congressman admits that he was plastered). This potential bit of interesting dramatic tension was also curiously bypassed in the film.

I think it’s also worth noting one more little tidbit from Wilson’s past that didn’t make it into the movie-but I think I can understand why. Allegedly, the randy congressman once had a little, er, “congress” with a hot young television journalist named Diane Sawyer. Yes, that Diane Sawyer, of “60 Minutes” fame. The one who is now married to…(wait for it)…director Mike Nichols. It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know.

One final thought. After the film’s high-fiving, feel-good, flag waving coda subsided and the credits started rolling, something was nagging. And then it dawned on me. There is one glaring omission in the postscript of this “true story”; I can only pose it as an open question to Mssrs. Nichols, Sorkin and Hanks:

So tell me-exactly how did we get from all those colorful, rapturously happy, missile launcher-waving Afghani tribesmen, dancing in praise to America while chanting Charlie Wilson’s name back in the late 80s to nightly news footage of collapsing towers and U.S. troops spilling their blood into the very same rocky desert tableau, a scant decade later?

Let’s see you turn THAT story into a wacky political satire starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Then again, what do I know? I’m just a guy who reviews movies.

Rogue Warriors: “Lawrence of Arabia ", “The Man Who Would Be King”, “Walker ”, “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, “Patton”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Three Kings”, “Murphy's War”, “Kelly's Heroes”, “Catch-22”, “Hell in the Pacific”, “Black and White in Color”.


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