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





Boogie Nights

Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights


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



30 December



Jeff Lynne born, 1947

On this day in 1947, Jeffrey Lynne was born in Birmingham, UK. Jeff was an early starter and by the age of 16 had formed a band in Birmingham, called first The Hellcats, then The Handicaps, and finally The Andicaps. By 18 he had learnt the rudiments of the studio recording process after buying a Bang & Olufsen BeoCord 2000 reel to reel tape machine, and joined a band called The Nightriders, who changed their name to The Idle Race. In 1970 he joined The Move, at the invitation of former Nightriders/Idle Race member Roy Wood. Together with guitarist/singer Wood, and drummer Bev Bevan, also of The Move, Lynne formed The Electric Light Orchestra, a rock/classical hybrid band designed to function in tandem with The Move. In fact the ELO almost immediately replaced The Move, both in the affections of the founders, and musically. Both Lynne and Wood were multi-instrumentalists adept at studio production and both saw themselves as frontmen. By 1972 – in a clear case of “too many chiefs” – Wood had left, leading to Lynne taking full creative control of ELO. Lynne tempered the rockier edge of the band over time, and ELO became a pop band with an increasingly complex studio sound. ELO became one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, though they were never regarded as cool by music papers such as the New Musical Express. During the 1980s the band’s popularity began to wane and Lynne moved into producing, including for George Harrison on his album Cloud Nine, much of which was co-written by Lynne. This led to the formation of The Traveling Wilburys, with Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. In the 1990s Lynne produced the Anthology albums for the surviving Beatles. Since then he has produced and written for Tom Jones, Aerosmith, Regina Spektor and Joe Walsh.




Boogie Nights (1997, dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)

Is Boogie Nights Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movie? Yes, he’s hit high notes since, with There Will Be Blood for instance, but Boogie Nights seems to have it all. And by “it all” I don’t just mean Heather Graham naked – at one point nearly every film seemed to feature Heather Graham naked. A souped-up version of his 1988 half-hour film The Dirk Diggler Story, it tells the story of the smalltown boy with a big asset in the trouser area, who becomes a porn star in its last golden age, when films were shot on real film, and had storylines. OK, so the storylines were as scant as Graham’s outfits but hey… Anderson conjures the period brilliantly and seems to make absolutely no wrong turns at all. Casting Mark Wahlberg, then still better known as Marky Marky of Calvin Klein underwear fame, was as brilliant as getting old Burt Reynolds to turn up and remind us what a real shit-eating grin looks like. Playing Jack Horner, Reynolds is folksy perfection as a porn producer who has borrowed half of Colonel Sanders’ finger-lickin’ shtick and gathered around him a surrogate family of performers, technicians, hangers-on, dealers, schemers, but not many friends. Boogie Nights is about the business of making porn, the production-line process of it, the people it sucks in and spits out, how the smart ones treat it as a job and how the dim ones are beguiled by it and ruined. Wahlberg, as Dirk Diggler, tightropes along that dividing line all the way through, surrounded by characters such as new best friend Reed (John C Reilly), sad-eyed assistant director Bill (William H Macy) and mother figure Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) who are all also negotiating the sticky path. The music of ELO fits the bill perfectly – bouncy, a touch of cheese – alongside a great clutch of poptastic tunes that dial us back to the late 1970s (Boney M, Andrew Gold, Hot Chocolate among them). Meanwhile Anderson’s camera also takes us back in time, in scenes that recall the roaming camera and complex long tracking shots of Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese. A film about the 1970s made in the style of the masters of the 1970s, with a big cast of well defined characters all with their own story arcs, that’s not easy. Following on from Hard Eight, PT Anderson’s mood piece about gamblers and other dwellers on the periphery, Boogie Nights announces the arrival in town of a new master.



Why Watch?


  • Wahlberg’s breakthrough
  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film
  • A cast including Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina
  • Robert Elswit’s cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Boogie Nights – at Amazon





Mission Impossible 3

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ving Rhames, Tom Cruise and Maggie Q – the Mission Impossible team



Remember the tagline for True Lies, the Arnie Schwarzenegger actioner in which he plays a secret agent whose wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) is unaware of his job – “When he said I do, he never said what he did”? Pretty much the same thing is going in M:I3, with impossibly happy semi-retired agent Tom Cruise unable to tell his fiancée (Michelle Monaghan) that he’s off on a perilous secret mission. In something of a departure from the previous two films, Tom does actually have more of a Mission Impossible team with him this time – Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q. This is all much more in keeping with the TV original, which focused on the intricately choreographed activities of the Mission Impossible team rather than the stuntorama of an individual. Also from TV is the director, Lost’s JJ Abrams who keeps the action boiling and gives us choppers and latex masks (where would M:I be without them?), international locations, gunplay and exploding vehicles, but seems incapable of injecting any flavour. Possibly that’s because he’s saddled with a plot that is flimsy beyond belief, Abrams (ie his paymasters) seeming to think that action is all that’s necessary. Let’s not knock the action; it is very well handled, it’s just that we’re on the third film now and we need a bit more. More, for example, of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Cruise’s dastardly nemesis this time out. Every time he sneers on to the screen, it’s as if someone turned all the dials on the M:I machine up a twist. Sadly, it doesn’t happen often enough.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Mission: Impossible 3 – at Amazon




State and Main

Rebecca Pidgeon and Philip Seymour Hoffman in State and Main



An intelligent and acidic if somewhat stagey comedy about a film production descending on a small New England town and the effect that each has on the other. It’s written and directed by David Mamet, not known for out and out comedy, but clearly feeling flighty at the moment, flighty enough to turn out the sort of farce you might expect from the French, or from Michael Frayn. And Mamet has the cast to perform it – Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julia Stiles and a surprisingly good Alec Baldwin, all of them upping their game in homage to a master of the blunt misanthropic object who has spent enough time writing and directing films to know what the standard types are, and how to polish them. So we get the innocent writer (Hoffman) who doesn’t want a word of his script changed; the tyro two-faced director (Macy) doglike in devotion or attack, depending on who he’s talking to; the female star (Sarah Jessica Parker) who suddenly gets coy about whipping her top off; the male star (Baldwin) with a penchant for jailbait; the jailbait (Stiles) with a penchant for male stars; the cameraman in a beret; the schlemiel of a producer. And so on. Meanwhile, there’s the occupants of the hayseed town they descend on, including Charles Durning and Patti LuPone. They’re hayseeds, but funny hayseeds, every bit as venal as the film folk, but they’ve just had less time to perfect their shtick. Under the farce plotting of wild coincidence and Mamet’s satirical stabs, the film seems to be saying something about how far “entertainment” (when someone else does it and you watch) is from “fun” (when you do it yourself) and how the movies are somehow killing us all. Movie critics, most of them armchair-loving lazy asses, not surprisingly didn’t like State and Main very much. And of course they’re right to be cagey, Mamet being an entertainment mogul, and all.

© Steve Morrissey 2001


State and Main – at Amazon