Charlie Wilson’s War (2008)

charliewilson1With Aaron Sorkin’s script as a road map, Charlie Wilson is a character that Mike Nichols can truly have fun with. You can easily see him getting an undue amount of delight in this man who was able to do such a momentous thing while simultaneously walking on the wild side. It had to be a good story to warrant the director’s cinematic swan song.

It’s a film that’s surprisingly overflowing with talent, headlined by the big three: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Amy Adams, a young Emily Blunt, and even the old veteran Ned Beatty pop up. Hanks is the undisputed star and Hoffman is the other standout among all the other players. Most of the female roles feel decidedly unsubstantial which is not too surprising given Wilson’s lifestyle. However, Charlie Wilson’s War also is a necessary piece of storytelling because it attempts to understand a period of history that for some reason is often absent from film. From 1980 to ’88 during the Carter and Reagan administrations, a lot happened — even as Dan Rather remained through it all.

charliewilson2In the opening moments, it becomes obvious that Charlie Wilson is not so much an easily corruptible representative as he is a sexed-up man who enjoys charming female company. He’s “Good Time Charlie” for good reason. He surrounds himself with pretty young things, doesn’t mind playing around a bit, and even has a cocaine charge hanging over him after a potentially objectionable night in Vegas. In fact, the attorney looking into his case is, interestingly enough, one Rudy Giuliani.

But the one thing that he had driving him was the desire to end the Soviets total obliteration of Afghanistan with their helicopters, and so he tried to spearhead the most extraordinary of covert wars which ultimately had considerable consequences. His keen ally Joanne Herring (Roberts) is resolute to get support for the oppressed people of the Middle East because it’s a religious issue. Meanwhile, CIA officer Gust Avrakos (Hoffman) battles with him over acquiring more funding. Although he’s not necessarily a great man, people like Charlie and it serves him well.

This film is fascinating, in a sense, for the implications it had for the cultural moment in which it came out. Could Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring have had any idea that these weapons used to fight the Soviets might have fallen into the wrong hands — the hands that orchestrated 9/11? That’s certainly a big jump and perhaps an utterly unwarranted presumption, but it’s a thought that nevertheless creeps into a skeptical mind. If nothing more it suggests that all history is so intertwined and interconnected. You cannot talk about the roots of the Cold War without starting with Word War II beforehand or you cannot attempt to get at the War on Terror without acknowledging the waning years of the Cold War that preceded it.

It’s troubling in a sense that we turned these things into a righteous war. Though it is understandable to want to do what is right, and oftentimes God is used to justify certain actions, it gets difficult when there is far greater ambiguity. It’s not always as easy as good vs. evil. We are all besmirched by greed, corruption, and the like. There’s no simple way to get around this fact, even bringing to mind Bob Dylan’s classic indictment “God on our Side” right about now.

This film carries those same undertones of religion and God that feel misguided since politicians and whoever else utilize him as their ultimate justification — their ace in the hole. Gus ironically feels the most honest for his general disdain for the practice. The war against the Soviets and the War on Terrorism are undoubtedly far more complicated matters, just as a discussion of God is a complex issue in its own right. Like the famed fable of the Zen Master, all we can really say is “We’ll see.” It takes a wise person to acknowledge they don’t know the end of the story, just like they don’t know all the answers to the big questions. They can only try their best to understand what will happen and act in the most sagacious way possible.

3.5/5 Stars

Notting Hill (1999)

NottingHillRobertsGrantThere is a scene in the film where a group of friends is sitting around the dinner table in the Notting Hill district of London, and they are having a friendly after dinner competition to decide whose life is the most hopeless. The winner gets the last delectable piece of fudge. One person sitting at the table is seemingly out of place. Actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). Her face is plastered on double-decker buses all down the squares. She made $ 15 million on her last film, circa 1999. You would think she’s got it made. But this woman takes her turn and shares about her own brokenness. She’s had surgeries to maintain her beauty. The tabloids rake her life over the coals, and when she gets old, she will only be remembered as the shell of someone who used to be famous.

It’s a haunting, honest look at what it means to be a celebrity superstar, and it is for this reason that Notting Hill works as a charming, at times witty, and altogether unlikely romantic comedy. It’s this simple suggestion that two people, from two entirely different spheres of life, can be together, because of the simple urge of every human for companionship, closeness, and someone to know they exist.

The two individuals, in this case, are Anna who I’ve already mentioned and Will Thacker (Hugh Grant). He’s a nobody just like you and me. He owns a corner travel bookstore, very cleverly named The Travel Book Co. He’s gotten his heart broken seriously twice and his roommate is the oddest crackpot you could ever have the misfortune of living with. That is his average, everyday life, in the neighborhood of Notting Hall.

That’s what makes a visit by an inconspicuous Anna Scott to his bookstore all the more extraordinary, while still allowing for the suspension of disbelief. Everything follows sequentially as it should. He runs into her with a cup of coffee and offers his flat as a place to freshen up. The first kiss comes quite by accident. Days later he winds up in a press conference once again face to face with this great star. But she surprises him by being his date to a small dinner for his sister’s birthday. A nighttime jaunt is accented with all the romance you could ever expect.

It’s too perfect and what follows are two obligatory strikes in their fantasy relationship. Will learns about Anna’s big shot boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) who is back in town. He’s caught off guard by it. Months go by as he tries to forget her, but she shows up on his doorstep looking for that person to talk to once more. When the tabloids show up, she is peeved, directing all her anger at Will, perhaps a little unfairly. And that looks to be the end of it all.

Months roll on again like pages in a travel log and here Anna is again in his shop, like the first time they met.  There’s an earnestness in her request to rekindle a relationship that makes us ache for Roberts. Like any frightened, often wounded, ordinary man, Will turns her down. It’s the logical decision. After all, he doesn’t want to get hurt again. Strike three. Except… his friends rally with him to catch her before it’s too late, because what’s the fun of rationality?

They go racing like a daft crew from Top Gear, “Gimme Some Lovin'” thumping in rhythm with Will’s beating heart. He gets to the Savoy Hotel just in time for her final press conference. A la Roman Holiday he professes his love incognito, and they wind up with it all. Red carpets, quiet afternoons in the park, and most importantly each other.

Notting Hall had me hooked simply with its images of England, a place that is near and dear to my own heart. It’s also a wonderful backdrop for romance, and this story from Richard Curtis finds it’s perfect duo in Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. He is handsome certainly, but that is overshadowed by his decent, every man quality which attracts Anna to him. He’s the man who willingly defends her honor in a restaurant, not because it’s easy, but it’s simply the right thing to do. Meanwhile, Roberts perhaps is playing a version of herself, as an actress, but she gives the character the necessary insecurities, eliciting more sympathy than I would have thought possible for someone coming out of Hollywood. Yes, Notting Hall might be a few minutes too long, but getting to walk down Portobello Road just might be worth it.

3.5/5 Stars