Charlie Wilson’s War

Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

3 July

 

President Carter agrees to topple the Afghanistan government, 1979

On this day in 1979, a US president whose reputation seems to rest on his profound desire to avoid conflict (see the Iran hostages crisis, a story told in Argo), signed a directive which would provide secret aid to opponents of the government in Kabul. The government, controlled by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was pro-Soviet and socialist, and Carter’s help consisted of funding the Peshawar Seven, one of two groups collectively known as the Mujahideen (the other, the Tehran Eight, was funded by Iran). The intention was to roll back Soviet influence in the area, after Soviet forces had entered the country, “to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible” in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor. The billions of dollars in aid led to the Mujahideen becoming a crack fighting force, well supplied, and able to hold off the Soviets for ten years, in the so-called Soviet War in Afghanistan (also known as “the Bear Trap”).

 

 

 

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007, dir: Mike Nichols)

Here’s a film that tells the whole messy story of United States foreign policy vis a vis Afghanistan, but tells it as a David and Goliath tale of one small guy battling insuperable odds. The guy is the eponymous Wilson, a Texas congressman who went on a protracted charm offensive to get the Afghanistan aid budget (ie military spending) upped from nothing to gazillions in an attempt to get the Soviets out of the region. It’s an extremely interesting period – as the Cold War starts turning in favour of the USA and people are just beginning to think in terms of “the end of history” – but director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin don’t try to bamboozle us with dates, geopolitical machination or grand theory. Instead they give us Tom Hanks – the man who explained survival in space in Apollo 13 and the Second World War in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers – playing Wilson as the charming old rogue he was. Opening scene: we meet Wilson in a jacuzzi, with some girls, a hillock of cocaine, a bottle of bubbly, having a good time. Brilliant. A typically Sorkin-style got-it-in-one piece of shorthand that requires no further elaboration – Wilson is seedy, intelligent, fun, principled (the dialogue tells us), fast-talking, sex-obsessed, and possibly looking for some grit in his oyster. And as good as Hanks is in this, and he is very very good, Philip Seymour Hoffman is even better as the sweaty low level CIA wonk whom Wilson gets promoted, the better to help Wilson get what he wants. Watch Hoffman deliberately gabbling his lines, his character almost falling over himself in an effort to please Wilson, the gravy train that this overlooked man thought would never arrive, and we’re watching a masterclass in desperation.
That’s the film, boiled right down, a series of encounters between one man or the other, and various other parties who have to be flattered, fended off, misinformed or lied to. This is where Julia Roberts comes in, as a rich socialite bankrolling Wilson because she hates commies, is a personal friend of Pakistan’s General Zia and, like Wilson, is probably a bit bored. Around the edges are Amy Adams, as Wilson’s bright fixer, one of an office full of good looking girls dubbed Charlie’s Angels – Wilson likes his girls. And there are meetings with people in bars, in refugee camps, in bland hotels in nameless parts of the world. It’s classic Sorkin, walkie-talkie writing, in other words – smart and expository, telling us just enough to keep us moving forward, adding a piece of the jigsaw here and there, but leaving it to us to connect them up. As with The West Wing, viewers should not come to Charlie Wilson’s War hoping for insight. This is not Geopolitics 101. But it is Screenwriting 101 – United States foreign policy in the region boiled down into one man. There’s even a bit of criticism of US foreign policy – that they shoot, then leave, behind them a mess that only gets messier after they’ve gone.
But for the most part it’s a celebration of a moment when America suddenly realised it had all but won the Cold War – a euphoric period that continued until 9/11 – when global forces were at such a point that one man with a very persuasive turn of phrase could really change the way things were done. Who’d have thought the creation of the Mujahideen could be this entertaining?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another great Hanks character
  • Part of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy
  • Smart Aaron Sorkin writing
  • Another fine political film from veteran Mike Nichols (Primary Colors)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Charlie Wilson’s War – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Social Network

Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

 

 

It’s often said that Kids Today can’t concentrate, that they don’t love words the way their parents did. Well, they flocked in the droves to see The Social Network, an old fashioned, plot driven, very talky film that seems aimed at people capable of mastering fine detail, people with an almost legal mindset. Regardless of the true state of the ADHD generation – isn’t it obvious that anyone who sits and plays a computer game for hours on end demonstrably has no problem with concentrating? – The Social Network tells the story of one of its generation’s figureheads, for good or ill: Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. In particular it spins on the relationship between Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, the money brothers who spent years pursuing Zuckerberg through the courts because, they claimed, he either stole their idea or failed to compensate them adequately for their input on the original FaceMash project. In the way that Facebook hooks people up, The Social Network mashes together a lot of fine talent – and the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. We have Aaron Sorkin’s fast, involving dialogue – the opening scene between Zuckerberg and a date (Rooney Mara) tells us everything we need to know about the subject’s personality, his attitude to women, his intelligence, his arrogance, his obsession (she says obsessed, he says motivated; Sorkin lets us decide). David Fincher is the perfect directorial choice too, a guy obsessed with process and function (you only have to see Seven to know that), whose muted pallette of oranges and browns, low lighting, and decision to pump Trent Reznor’s music up high – suggesting intense brain activity, the frenzy of creativity, the buzz a bright idea delivers – allows the viewer to scope the areas where words cannot go. And around one hour or so in, it might suddenly hit you that Jesse Eisenberg isn’t actually Mark Zuckerberg, such is the perfection of his playing of this character – charming, yes, but just this side of overweening – even though Eisenberg is clearly too old to be playing a 19 year old.

In terms of plot the film breaks down into how it was done – how hacking into the personal files Harvard kept on its students (a late-night computer prank fuelled by sexual rancour and a feeling of social exclusion) gave birth almost magically to a once-in-a-generation megacorp. And then how that idea was subsequently monetised (enter Justin Timberlake as Napster guy Sean Parker, Mephistopheles dressed as a cruising shark). Running like a sore under this rise-and-rise plot strand are the Winklevosses, the socially connected (in all the right but old ways) brothers about to be shafted by a new paradigm. The Winklevoss stuff injects an old-fashioned courtroom drama ambience, and – set in brightly lit lawyers offices and Harvard professors’ studies, all suited and booted – provides relief from the bars and bedrooms and really lets Sorkin crack wise. Fast moving and littered with just enough references to MySQL and Apache, The Social Network entirely succeeds in making us feel like we’re inside with the new kids on the block, not outside with… er… us.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Social Network – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Social Network

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

3 October

 

 

The Mickey Mouse Club debuts, 1955

On this day in 1955, Walt Disney launched The Mickey Mouse Club on the ABC television network. Essentially a variety show that made stars of its mini-vaudevillians (named Mouseketeers), it was hosted by a number of adult comperes. Initially this was Jimmy Dodd, who would intersperse performances by the kids and old episodes of shows such as The Hardy Boys with a song and a homily of his own composing, thus setting the tone for the MMC – sunny, positive, virtuous. The show continued until its cancellation in 1959, but then continued to be shown in popular syndicated repeats on US television. Those reruns were still being shown when the show was revived in 1977, using the same basic formula (theme days, cartoons, episodes of serials, chunks of movies) for a short run. And it was revived again in 1989, the mix augmented now by music videos, comedy sketches, and live performances by the Mouseketeers. Among the Mouseketeers in this final 89-95 run were Keri Russell (91-93), though it was the class of 93-95 which proved particularly noteworthy. It contained Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

 

 

The Social Network (2010, dir: David Fincher)

The film about the creation, early days and volcanic rise of Facebook, and its disputed (what the film is all about) creator Mark Zuckerberg could be said to belong to any number of people. For sure, it’s a David Fincher product, slick, beautiful, well paced and confident. But most of those adjectives could also be applied to Aaron Sorkin, who wrote it. And what of Jesse Eisenberg, as geeky Zuckerberg? Or Rooney Mara as the girl who dumps him. Or Armie Hamer as the Winklevoss twins (the “Winkelvi”) whom Zuckerberg swindles/beats (delete according to taste for litigation) in the race to set up a Bebo-style chatspace for university students – Facemash, Zuckerberg initially called it. The casting and writing are so assured in this film that no matter who we’re with, even Mara, who’s not in the film for long, while they’re on screen it’s their film. Which brings us to Mickey Mouse Club alumnus Justin Timberlake. This surely is his best role and he is in some respects the beating heart of the film, playing Sean Parker, the file-sharing-site Napster inventor who swoops in late to pick up something bright glinting in the sunlight. His involvement, advice and money enabled Facebook to leapfrog any number of hurdles, got it its first serious investment from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and set it on the road to where it is now. In the process Parker became Facebook President. But is he a good guy or a bad guy? An enthusiast for new media or an opportunist? The beauty of Timberlake’s performance is that he makes Parker an immensely attractive character, the person with whom Zuckerberg forms the alliance that mattered when it mattered. In the process Parker might have stolen the soul of Facebook, or Zuckerberg might have given it to him willingly, in return for the untold riches that Parker was dangling under his nose. In essence it’s Faust updated, Faustbook, with Timberlake as Mephistopheles. And he knows damn well that that’s what this role is all about. You can almost smell the sulphur coming off the screen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Give or take the odd disputed fact – and the lawyers have been all over this film – the history of the founding of Facebook
  • The breakout role for Armie Hammer, as the Winklevoss twins
  • Trent Reznor’s great soundtrack
  • Sorkin’s script makes this a movie for anyone who loves words – no knowledge of PHP or MySQL required

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Social Network – at Amazon