January 28th, 2008

No particular war

So last night I saw Charlie Wilson’s War and liked it very much. This was not a surprise, as it was written by Aaron Sorkin the writer of my most-loved tv shows. And indeed, the film did contain Sorkin’s much-beloved banter, walk’n’talks, long-shots and high-flown political wonkery. And, as with much of Sorkin’s work, he faltered on the ladies, who were condescendingly drawn on occasion, and also saddled with awkward religious hypocrisy, as if that were just the lot of he fairer sex.

But Julia Roberts fares better than most of Sorkin’s recent lady-stars, in part because he downplays his personal issues to give her some of the best lines in the flick, and in part because she’s Julia Roberts and, dammit, she can make the best of anything, even having her gorgeous hair bleached and sprayed in a seemingly desperate attempt to make it look like a wig. And she’s opposite Tom Hanks, which is such a wonderful pairing of easy charm that I don’t know why no one thought of it before. And how great, too, that a movie that concerns events of the twenty years ago would star people so seminal at that time. Big came out in 1988, one of the first films I saw in theatres, and it filled me with joy to see that maturity and the ability to feed and clothe oneself didn’t matter one whit if you had honesty and enthusiasm. There was hope for me, apparently, to take on the world, as soon as I could get myself to Manhattan.

Julia’s big break, in Pretty Woman didn’t come until a few years later, which is just as well, since even my oblivious parents noticed taglines like, “Who knew it was so much fun to be a hooker?” I did eventually see it, and love it. Even then, I knew there was something wrong with the conceit that the way to a man’s heart was to sell him your body and hope he noticed your soul, and something wrong with a country where a girl could really find herself forced by financial circumstances to do so. Still, even now, if you were to somehow break into the feminist enclave that is my apartment, fix the DVD player and put on *Pretty Woman*, I’d sit down and watch, and swoon. I’d feel dirty about it at first, but then I’d block out the real circumstances presented and just enjoy the banter.

As I did in *Charlie Wilson’s War.* With the office hijinx and even fairly serious arguments, the movie could’ve been about almost anything, because the conversations focused on strategic alliances, media, and money–the necessities of war, of course, but also the necessities of anything. Perhaps because of Sorkin’s history on the small-screen, coupled director Mike Nichols’ reputation as a “poet of the living room (I read that somewhere, possibly The New Yorker), they seemed to want to prove something with the battle scenes. I think they could’ve done the whole thing with radar-screen blips and intense conversations, as Sorkin did on West Wing, as I’ve seen in several deeply unsettling low-budget *Hamlet*s, but they had to show the guns, and that was pretty wretched, half video game, half propaganda film.

It was one thing to show refugee camps, and mangled children’s bodies–eliciting pity, showing the evil that must be stopped (who were those child actors, I wonder). But it could’ve been almost any war, or an informercial with Sally Struthers: the only political message of those scenes was: children good, people who hurt children bad. Then there was a scene, and I still don’t know what I was meant to feel during it, that showed young Russian soldiers piloting planes and strafing villages, killing women and children while talking in Russian over their walkie-talkies about their girlfriends. This is late in the movie, when the Afghan villagers had finally been given shoulder-mounted missile launchers. They are able to destroy the planes before they can do as much damage as they meant to. We get to see the panic on the Russian soldiers’ faces before they are engulfed in flames.

Of course, the villagers had no choice, if in fact it happened that way. I wasn’t rooting for the kids on the ground to die, but I wasn’t particularly rooting for the kids in the air to die, either. Is that a happy moment? Nichols and Sorkin play it as wild celebration for all the good guys.

The only militaristic footage that looked real was actually real–taken from news reports of the time period. And here’s where we get the third star of the period, and the first one of my youth. Before Julia, before Tom, pretty much concurrent with The Muppets, I loved Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News. Every evening at 6:30, since long before I was born, my parents watched “Rather”, and then they had dinner and talked about what they had seen. When I was small, and eagerly awaiting my spaghetti, I watched too, or at least sat around and listened to words I didn’t understand. Years later than excusable, I actually thought Dan Rather was President of the United States, and that every evening they wheeled the cameras into the Oval Office so he could bring anyone who was interested up to date.

Dan’s is one of the first faces we see in this film, and it set me right at ease. I probably haven’t heard his voice since I moved out of my folks’ place, and it was tremendously soothing. I probably actually sat through some of the news reports from the film, though I remembered nothing. And the movie didn’t explain much–the news was for exposition, but precious little of it. I had to come home and google to find out what was going on with the Russians in Afghanistan. Sorkin wasn’t going to explain, make the war weird and particular and complicated, and not just a generic Good v. Evil, with all that stuff. Not that the Russians were so far off the mark of evil in that war, as far as I can tell, but they had some motives, they weren’t just psycotic baby-bombers. For the purposes of the picture though, they could’ve been just any bad dudes in history, or James Bond films.

And it’s funny, because for a movie that so ignores and generalizes the history here, at the end there is an alarming about-face, as the final scenes set the movie up as the history of our present tense, showing the Americans as over-confident in victory and setting in motion the terrible events that are even now occuring in Afghanistan. This takes place a while after the worst of the battle scenes, after a lot more joyful triumph and Roberts-Hanks banter and silly smooches. I was enjoying myself again, I’d been lulled by the semi-facts, that good things had happened in some war somewhere, and that everything was now fine. The end of the film was astounding in that it pointed out the lie of it’s own Hollywood-ishness, and yet I wasn’t sure as I left the theatre that I had really wanted that. I was sort of happy, for a while, to go back to the days when the News wasn’t news of any particular war, it was just the noise in the background before you sat down to supper with the people you loved best.

The body says no

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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