Here are two films from director Mike Nichols which, even looking in the rear-view mirror of history, have a lot to say about the human cost of invasion in Afghanistan and a national election involving the Clintons. Both the soon-to-be released Charlie Wilson’s War and last decade’s Primary Colors are adapted from best-selling non-fiction books where a major film star gets to affect a southern accent as a larger-than-life politician with a weakness for women. In this Smackdown, we’ve got Tom Hanks and John Travolta. There are other parallel roles to contrast: Julia Roberts versus Emma Thompson and those guys with three names, Phillip Seymour Hoffman versus Billy Bob Thornton. So let the games begin:
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Charlie Wilson’s War is based on the late George Crile’s book about how, in the late ’80s, a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, skirt-chasing congressman almost single-handedly got a covert war financed so the Afghan Mujahideen could shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships in Afghanistan. If that sounds like an unlikely premise for a hot film, I have two words for you: Aaron Sorkin.
It’s his dialogue, that whip-smart, hyper-real patter of the cynical idealist that he perfected on TV’s The West Wing that lifts the story, particularly when Hanks’ Charlie Wilson and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s CIA op Gust Avrakotos get together. Director Nichols has learned a thing or two over the years, too, staging one of the funniest scenes between the two that is timed just perfectly. In any case, Charlie and Gust conspire with Julia Roberts’ Joanne Herring, a wealthy Texas socialite, to buy Soviet weapons from Israel, sell them to Pakistan, and get them into Afghanistan. Eventually, the Soviets turn tail and run in defeat, and the guys we armed turn into the Taliban, welcome the al-Qaeda gang, and plot 9/11, but that’s another movie. This movie is about saying that nothing would ever get done if people played by the rules and that a good guy sometimes has to act like a bad guy to make a difference.
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The film comes with its own strong pedigree: political writer Joe Klein wrote the book (originally as Anonymous), and the film was written by Elaine May and directed by Mike Nichols. Everything inside is paper-thin disguised as being about the 1992 Clinton campaign for the White House. John Travolta’s Jack Stanton loves politics, just like the real character he’s based on, and really cares about people, some of them so much he can’t resist having sex with them. The reason to watch the film today, of course, is for insight into the Hillary character, Susan Stanton, as played by Emma Thompson (if you can get past how her repression of her British accent seems to give her Susan a sort of non-American blandness). Travolta’s impression of our former president is a little too slow and scratchy and never quite nails down this character as someone who could win the presidency despite some huge errors in personal judgment. There’s a great moment when Susan Stanton up and slaps the hell out of her husband’s face after his latest infidelity; it’s surprising, and it’s what you would hope Hill actually did to Bill at some point. However, this is a film that doesn’t actually pick sides. Clinton haters will see it as proof that Bill was barely a moral level above pond scum, and Clinton lovers will see it as proof of his humanity, however flawed and imperfect.
I actually saw Charlie Wilson’s War at the Directors Guild theater where Mike Nichols was the guest (interviewed by Alexander Payne) and answered questions for almost an hour. Nichols talked about both films but didn’t seem to see how much character and tone they shared. Nichols sang the praises of both his earlier writer and partner, Elaine May, and his latest, Aaron Sorkin. As he told it, Sorkin was working on his TV series Studio 60 and launching his play The Farnsworth Invention, when he was doing Charlie Wilson’s War. A little of that attention deficit disorder seems to have sunk into not only the dialogue but also Nichols’ final pacing of his film. Primary Colors, by way of comparison, was almost two-and a half hours.
Nichols began by saying that “All films are political,” and one audience member challenged him in the last question of the night about how the film was a “love letter to Bush,” an opinion that neither the director nor I seemed to share (and that I know for a fact Sorkin clearly doesn’t). But it did point out that Charlie Wilson’s War is by far more murky in terms of getting an easy handle on its politics. Primary Colors is all personal, and if anything, seems only to be saying that running for office is a game that sometimes is fun, sometimes dangerous, and always played for keeps. This latest film, though, has Democrats wanting to kill Russians in Afghanistan and lionizes Hanks’ Wilson even though what he did is bend and twist the government rules to get his way, and for my money, not all that differently from Oliver North. The moral of Charlie Wilson’s War seems to be that conning lawmakers to turn a $5-million covert ops budget into a $1-billion one is fine, because their heart was in the right place, and our only mistake was not building schools for the Afghans after the Soviets were defeated. It was an odd moment: 95% of the DGA audience, the director, the screenwriter and probably everybody else in Hollywood is opposed to the use of force by the U.S. and our interference in foreign conflict most of the time, but in this film, it’s the rooting value.
In terms of performances, though, Tom Hanks makes a more convincing Charlie Wilson than John Travolta does a Bill Clinton. Of course, part of this is because we know who Clinton is, and we have no clue about Wilson, but it’s also that Travolta is operating in a place of less comfort than Hanks. The point here goes to Charlie Wilson’s War. Both films have their sparkplugs: Hoffman in Charlie and Thornton in Colors, but Hoffman’s is the more important role, and he just takes the movie and the decision here, too. Emma Thompson in Colors, however, is far more interesting than Julia Roberts in Charlie.
In the writing honors, Sorkin gets the edge over May, but only on points. Both of these people know what they’re doing so well, and it shows. You can debate the politics, but not the quality of the words.
Charlie Wilson’s War is definitely a film worth seeing, but I’ll be damned if I can put my finger on what, aside from the plot points, it’s really about. Primary Colors is more focused in what it wants to say about the state of American elections. It’s really close in a lot of ways, yes, but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Gust simply has to be seen. He’s in a flawed and sometimes confusing film, but it’s a great performance, probably the best of the year. In order to see it, you have to see Charlie Wilson’s War.