Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Outside-the-rotation movies blogging: Charlie Wilson's War

There is something fundamentally dishonest about Charlie Wilson's War, Aaron Sorkin's entry into the big-screen All the President's Men or Wag the Dog political tragicomedy sweepstakes. Coincidentally, my old friend The General (who knows a whole hell of a lot more about film than I ever will) had just mentioned it to me over the weekend, after this event, and then it was broadcast on cable last night--so I finally gritted my teeth and watched it. It's beautifully filmed, with great camera work and (some) wonderful casting, acting, and writing, but it's riddled with those glossy, yet essentially cowardly and blinkered choices which also eventually put me off The West Wing.

The true story behind CWW is sufficiently wild to explain its attraction for Sorkin: a drankin' and wimmenizin' Congressman from a safe Houston district runs headlong into the cynical global politics of the US response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: e.g., give the Islamic resistance (mujahadeen) only minimal support so that the Soviets are enticed to hang on in that mountainous kingdom which has always been death to imperial hopes--Greek, Persian, British, Russian, American. The intent was to in turn bleed the Soviet infrastructure dry--a lesson the mujahadeen promptly learned, applied, and, after the Soviet retreat, turned against the American infidels who had first armed and then abandoned the resistance.

Wilson was so struck by the magnitude of the Soviet-inflicted human suffering he saw in the Pakistani refugee camps that he woke up out of the cocaine-and-Jack-Daniels haze and put his considerable powers of persuasion to work on changing US arms policy. Drawing on the same lunatic Forest Oaks and Sugar Land far-right Christian fundamentalist millionaires and DOD appointees who three decades before had conspired at the assassination of John Kennedy, Wilson successfully doubled and redoubled the budget and scope of covert arms-dealing by the US to the mujahadeen, and along the way indulging himself with the worst, most-ridiculous, "all hat and no cowboy" Texan dress-up (up to and including riding with the freedom fighters), playing at "the Great Game" the way that George W. Bush played at being a fighter pilot.

And then, within a few weeks after the Soviets' much-trumpeted withdrawal, watched Congress likewise withdraw all support--effectively ceding Afghanistan, much of Pakistan, and entirely too much of Arab consciousness to the radical elements who had used the Soviet war to build for holy war--and who promptly turned that jihad on the west. The story was beautifully told by Molly Ivins, who knew and was amused by Charlie Wilson while never losing sight of his essential disconnect regarding the long-term consequences of his actions, in a series of columns for the Dallas Observer...and, who, in those 1500-word columns, articulated a hell of a lot more insightful, prescient, and mature perspective on Charlie and his War.

The film is not nearly as realistic. It's got all the "guilty pleasures" of West Wing, including fantastic, intelligent, sharp-as-a-tack comic dialogue (the scene that introduces Philip Seymour Hall's brilliant portrayal of "Gust Avrakotos," the upstate NY-born foul-mouthed CIA analyst who serves as Wilson's marvelously contemptuous Afghan advisor, is as good as anything WW ever did), and (some of) the aforementioned casting--principally, that of Hall--is wonderful.

But the damned thing suffers from every flaw of West Wing, only now writ large, in what I have come to think of as Sorkin's essentially, fatally, and cowardly "liberal apologetics."

There's a great scene in my hero Ross Thomas's Chinaman's Chance, an otherwise very simple and cursory political thriller, in which the young Socialists who are helping a political operative, on the run, comment that self-described "liberals" cannot be trusted, because they are the "kind of people who work for Dow Chemical during the day and then sneak off to stuff envelopes for Common Cause at night. The kind of people who would be herded into the corporate concentration camps wearing buttons that read 'We meant well'." In West Wing, and here in Charlie Wilson's War, Sorkin tries to have it both ways: he wants us to know that he knows just how corrupt, venal, greedy, stupid, and criminal most politicians and corporate types are, and to invite us (and profit from our desire) to revel in his fantasy world, where the anomalous Great Men (never women) stand up to such types and call them, in marvelously articulate and scalpel-precise invective, on their bullshit (Jeb Bartlett eviscerating Christian fundamentalist hate-radio broadcasters with his greater-than-theirs knowledge of scripture, and his closing line "Now get your fat asses out of my White House," Josh Lyman telling the President "Let's take a walk" up to the Hill to face-down a defiant Republican congress). And by writing those latter, incredibly gratifying, but ultimately fantasy scenes, provide us the illusion that just watching the program, or quoting it to one another, is the same thing as actually making a difference.

And it is not. Liberal apologetics are designed, by cynical intent or simple "well-meaning" wish fulfillment, to make people occupying relatively privileged and protected positions feel that the improved conditions they sincerely believe they desire for those less privileged can be obtained through little effort, small sacrifices, and--especially--no risks. Through "meaning well." To appeal to those people who, like Sorkin, come from a socio-economic background where the actual exploitative rubber of policies disenfranchising the poor and the marginalized never really hits the road. He wants to show us a fantasy of a better world, and make us think that by watching and laughing and cheering, we're making a difference, without having to experience any of the pain, suffering, or, at the very fucking least, sacrifice (No, Junior, "be brave and go shopping" in the wake of 9/11 was not "sacrifice") that might actually change those circumstances.

And this is false. And it was never more false than in those WW episodes in which Sorkin framed the Bartlett Administration's decision-makers with dilemmas about which they would elegantly, articulately agonize--and then fold. The Death Row-inmate over whose impending execution Martin Sheen (a great presence, but an absolutely outrageous rug-chewer) spent 40 minutes deliberating--with the help of another generation's Hollywood substitute for a conscience, Karl Malden as a Catholic priest--and then folded, allowing the execution to go forward. The Chinese communist pianist who wants to defect, over whom Bartlett agonizes, before folding. The list goes on and on.

And the problem is that Sorkin writes the stuff as cheap, no-cost, "skip the hard stuff" therapy: by making us identify with the elegantly articulate, rumpled-yet-appealing members of the Bartlett administration, and then putting them through the "moral dilemmas" (which really aren't dilemmas at all--just challenges to liberal privilege, comfort, and conviction of moral rightness) of the audience, and then showing those avatars folding when the going really gets tough, he makes it OK for us to fold as well. There's a kind of legerdemain that occurs when an artist portrays the world we desperately wish existed--though we know it doesn't--and then shows impossibly appealing people also folding when the tough gets going. It lets us off the hook. Sorkin lets the West Wing audience off the hook, lets them avoid that others are suffering while they themselves are enjoying outrageous privilege, and he does it over and over and over again.

He does it again in Charlie Wilson's War. It starts with the casting of Hanks: a terribly personable, generous actor, who's had moments of greatness (bits of Saving Private Ryan, bits of Road to Perdition, Philadelphia, much of the otherwise-manipulative and sexist A League of Their Own; I exempt the execrable You've Got Mail, Forrest Gump, Sleepless in Seattle, Castaway, etc) but who ultimately is never going to be able to play a character with much darkness or moral ambiguity. They call him the Jimmy Stewart of his generation--but that is not necessarily a good thing, in any period of greater moral ambiguity than the Hollywood '30s (that would be every other period). Especially not when he's playing Charlie Wilson, who himself admitted that he, and the people he worked with in first arming and then abandoning the mujahadeen, were as responsible as anybody in the West for 9/11 (which I would argue: I think there's enough guilt to go around, and lots left over for the incompetents--Rice, Cheney, and Rumsfeld among them--who ignored over eleven warnings about precisely the form the attacks would take). Hanks is just too damned likable to pull off either Charlie Wilson's force of character (as confirmed by Ivins), which armed the mooj, or the bleak darkness of his realization about how stupid they had been in doing so the way they did. The damned movie ends with a bullshit triumphalist montage, of helicopters exploding, mujahadeen celebrating, the Soviets departing, and a fucking awards ceremony for Charlie Wilson.

The problem continues with the casting of Julia Roberts (America's "sweetheart"?!?) as Joanne Herring, the lunatic heiress who funded the covert Afghan war as an act of resistance against the "godless Communists," which motivation has almost always led to absolutely, criminally stupid and ill-informed American foreign-policy choices. Letting Joanne Herring cobble together the funding for the covert Afghan war was like letting Oliver North run illegal arms & drug sales in the basement of the Reagan White House--in both cases, because people who were supposed to be supervising (covert and overt) foreign policy were too stupid, lazy, ideological, and ill-informed to do their fucking jobs. And thousands--tens of thousands--died because of that stupidity. And Sorkin glosses it. And Julia Roberts--who all reports would suggest is actually a very sweet and nice person--isn't the actress to carry off the inherently dishonest characterization--any more than she was equipped to carry off the fictional "Kitty Kieman"--or the accent--in Michael Collins.

Of course, there's also the fact that Sorkin appears to be congenitally incapable of writing a mature, effective, confident, and competent female character. Even when he explicitly set out to do so, in, say, Allison Janney's press secretary "C.J. Craig" or Stockard Channing's First Lady "Abbey Bartlett," he wound up alternately treating such characters as figures of mockery (C.J. falling into her pool and "talking like a chipmunk" after a root-canal, or Abbey Bartlett oscillating wildly and unpredictably from Earth Mother to Joan Crawford Ice Queen). Here, his main sexist potshots are reserved for the sweatered, big-chested office staff Wilson was renowned for.

And, finally, Sorkin suffers from the same fucking problem as almost every other high-powered, highly-skilled Hollywood writer, producer, or director who tries to depict either working-class, Third World, or wartime experience. Because almost none of them have actually undergone it, and probably because of the bubble of wealth and privilege in which they pass their lives, almost none of them have any idea about what any of those three realms of experience is actually like.

You don't learn what minimum wage is like, what combat is like, in film school, or in reels of past Hollywood classics. Spielberg in Schindler's List and Private Ryan, Sorkin in this and West Wing, Michael Mann in Mohicans and Miami Vice, fucking Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, even Hanks himself in Band of Brothers, and on and on and on--they don't actually know what it's like to work hard physical labor, go hungry, or risk your life So they romanticize, idealize, sexualize these things--even when they're subjecting us to virtuosic, excruciatingly accurate detail, which they think "keeps it real," they still don't get what it is. They just can't resist making it look "cool," making the good guys better, making the bad guys worse cartoons, or, most significantly, giving the middle-class audience the feel-good ending that real life lacks. And (in the case of Spielberg and his protege Hanks) their only real cultural or historical experience is filtered by the movies--so the writing of secondary characters, working-class characters, "ethnic" characters, in films like Ryan or Brothers or Charlie Wilson's, is embarassingly naive and simplistic.

And by doing this, and hiding under the guise of "keeping it real" and putting Good Liberal Sentiments in the mouths of people who "meant well" but folded the moment they either got what they wanted, or the going got a little too tough--or "too real"--and inscribing such story arcs in the Hollywood narratives that are the only version of the story that most Americans will ever even be aware exists, they sell out reality.

And people die.

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