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"Charlie Wilson's War" And Other Movie Adventures

By admin Published: December 27, 2007


Some thoughts about "Wilson's," "Live Free or Die Hard" and "Superbad," after the jump ...

These holidays often boil down to too much snacking and barely enough relaxing -- sitting around, reading new books, watching DVDs -- and there has been plenty of that. More this year than some, in fact. As we were leaving church on Christmas Eve, the bride tried to reach for the rail by the unlit steps outside, missed and fell down the steps. It was a terrifying sight, and she could have been hurt much worse than we was. And while major injury was avoided, she is still well scraped and bruised, and she has had to curtail her urge to be active, so she can heal.

Anyway, last night we caught the unrated version of "Live Free or Die Hard," and I was pleased to see that in this rendition, the concluding word once again follows "Yippie-ki-yay." It was not included in the theatrical release, which was edited for a PG-13 rating, to the dismay of those of us who have faithfully watched the "Die Hard" movies. And watched them more than once.

Three of us were watching -- me, the bride and Target Demo, the now-32-year-old daughter. (Younger Son, 18, was at work.) The language didn't bother me in that group. But when all four of us had sat down to watch the unrated DVD of "Superbad," I was maybe 10 minutes in when I said, "I can't do this."

I saw the movie in a theater. I laughed very hard at the movie. I acknowledged its unrelenting crudeness when I gave it a positive review. But that just wasn't the same as sitting and watching with family members. Then it was too gross. It was, in fact, embarrassing. It made me uncomfortable and I just could not sit there any longer.

Maybe it would have been different in a theater, where you sit in the dark, somewhat isolated from those around you. But, as I said in a previous post, I was somewhat unnerved during "No Country for Old Men" because I knew how the bride was reacting to the violence against animals. So I might have flinched during "Superbad," too.

But it's all about context, isn't it? Not only whom you see a movie with, but where and how you see it -- big screen or small; home, crowded theater or a theater with just a few folks in it; theater where people yak or one where there's respectful silence; tired when you watch or over-caffeinated. It all goes on.

There have been times when I have wondered if a review should contain some kind of explanatory note: This film was seen on a weekday afternoon with a handful of other professional movie-viewers, when I was fighting a cold and had had to deal with rotten traffic on the way to a theater in Cleveland where the seats are really uncomfortable. Same deal with television reviews: This review is based on a rough cut with temporary music, watched at home one afternoon with interruptions because the phone kept ringing.

But I am rambling. And I am rambling to avoid facing the issue of "Charlie Wilson's War," a movie that I still have not made up my mind about.

Oh, it has good things, including Tom Hanks's performance as the title character, a Texas congressman who was crucial to giving Afghan rebels the money and weapons to fight their Soviet invaders; that effort bled the Russian economy and morale, and helped lead to the fall of the Soviet Union. And just about any time Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as an abrasive but canny CIA man who helps guide Wilson) are on screen, you're seeing two guys playing at the top of their games, and those games are far more than mere serve and volley.

But the movie itself, written by Aaron Sorkin (from a book about Wilson) and directed by Mike Nichols, felt odd, almost as if it was unfinished, a series of scenes meant to be part of a longer and more textured movie. This is especially true near the end, when the Afghans and their U.S. supporters have triumphed, but the U.S. then fails to win the peace. That failure is covered very briefly, assuming the audience knows what happened, and that there is no point in dwelling on that and Charlie's resulting misery.

At the same time, though, that sketchy pay-off -- a real contrast to what we might have seen had Sorkin done this material during his years on "The West Wing" -- allows the movie to end with an ending the audience can take as happy: the Soviets vanquished, Wilson being applauded. It's not entirely like what "I Am Legend" did, sending Will Smith to his fate but tacking on a touch of optimism that was not in the Richard Matheson novel.

Only, where "I Am Legend" can suggest a future we do not see, "Charlie Wilson's War" leads to a present where we know exactly what happened. And the movie overall is at once an indictment of American government and an endorsement of the American spirit. Officialdom will not help the Afghan people in their war, but a couple of flawed but determined cowboys with the right connections -- and Charlie Wilson has spent his career making the right connections -- can change the world.

Or can they really? Doesn't the American system ultimately, and tragically, overwhelm the cowboys? I'm reading Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA," where he argues that the agency's annals are "replete with fleeting successes and long-lasting failures abroad." His emphasis, of course, is on failure. And I wonder if there should be greater emphasis on that in "Charlie Wilson's War."

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