24 January, 2008

Word of Mouth: "Charlie Wilson's War"



Charlie Wilson, a lazy playboy politician, confronted by the suffering of Afghan refugees changes to try and help the Mujahideen defeat the Soviet invaders.

There’s been a debate on Shooting People's Screenwriter’s Network regarding this film which raises intriguing questions.

Can a film be judged purely as a film regardless of what may be dodgy morals of the leading characters or dodgy ethics of what went on?

I believe so but it depends on how well it is written. I think Aaron Sorkin did a really good job on this adaptation but the sophisticated way it is done will not be to everyone’s taste.


Whether the political situation is portrayed accurately or not is a separate moral and ethical issue. As an extremely extreme example, consider the depiction of Jews by Wagner or Dickens, it’s morally repugnant but as works of art The Ring and Oliver Twist are pretty damn awesome.

Putting the politics aside for a moment, the movie has a great structure, great characters and excellent dialogue. Wilson’s character arc is classic: lazy playboy politician - who isn't really interested in making a difference - sees the suffering of the Afghan refugees and so becomes hard-working to achieve the goal of stopping that suffering by getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan.


It is in the very nature of a character arc that the character will change, but although Wilson becomes hard-working he is still a non-celibate bachelor with all that entails from sharing a hot tub with strippers to employing hot women on his staff.

What I realised for the first time, from the Shooters discussion, was how for some people such flaws can be a road block to empathy for the character and caring about the story but the alternative of writing saints is just too stupid to think about.


There are many levels at work here, amongst them that Wilson is literally in bed with a right-wing nut-job who wants his help against the Soviets for religious reasons, but it's made clear he's doing it from a humanitarian Democrat perspective.

The concerns about the politics are not entirely unfounded as effectively you have the hero supporting a neo-con covert war being waged against an elected government and the country they invited in to help quell an Islamofascist rebellion. However, what some people fail to realise is that depicting something that happened isn’t the same as agreeing with it.


What’s good about the film for most people, and what confused some, are the shades of grey; the subtleties and ironies. You have a Democrat doing what Republicans want but for different reasons. And when he continues to push a humanitarian agenda and rebuild the country after the Soviets leave, the Republicans aren’t interested - which comes back to bite them on 9/11.

Actually the 9/11 ending is only in the first draft script and Sorkin fought to keep it for a long time. It is more explicit and obvious but I thought the new ending worked better as it was more subtle. The celebration at the beginning is repeated at the end but by then we realise there was nothing much to celebrate really. It’s swings and roundabouts as that was clearly too subtle for some.



What I admired was the way Sorkin also made a parallel between neo-cons and the Mujahideen in terms of fundamentalist faith and the consequences of relying on that as a solution to the Afghanistan problem.

With Charlie Wilson’s War, Sorkin has managed to avoid the usual pitfalls political dramas drop into by being intelligent, funny and fast moving. Look at the tricks he uses to avoid it seeming too talky, and I don’t just mean his patented “walk and talk”. I recommend it.

Aaron Sorkin interview

Aaron Sorkin’s first draft

6 comments:

Elver said...

What the bloody hell was so great about this film? The dialog, for one, was completely laughable. So full of exposition and history lessons that it hurt.

There's this one part in the film where Wilson asks a simple yes or no question and gets a mile long answer that lists Wilson's every past career achievement and it's just the two of them, no third party to explain things to. I burst out laughing so hard, I had to wipe snot off the monitor.

And the whole "I bugged your whiskey and you're being investigated" scene was just pure comedy in a film that otherwise wanted to be taken seriously.

The whole screenwriting style seems like it's out of a TV sitcom, but with less jokes.

Plus there aren't any obstacles in the film. It's just Charlie Wilson wanting stuff and then getting stuff. Never does he get shafted in any way. If this had been written by a first-time writer, it would have been tossed away as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and rightfully so. Charlie Wilson is a powerful playboy who gets everything he wants, solves a crisis in Afghanistan, and beats the Ruskies. And while doing it he gives us a comprehensive history lesson consisting of boring names and dates.

It's not an awful film, to be fair, but it doesn't really rise above mediocre either. A lot of people seem to think it's good, but I'm fairly certain that it just sucks in an unusual direction.

Jon Peacey said...

A film can be judged independently of the dodgy morals/ ethics of the leading characters or what went on; whether it should is a different matter. It could easily be said that, say, Easy Rider was full of the rather morally dodgy; and where would it leave Scorsese with everything from Taxi Driver to Gangs Of New York?

"I believe so but it depends on how well it is written." If judging film-making quality it surely doesn't mater if it's well-written because this is part of the quality issue as opposed to moral issue. A badly made film doesn't become better just because it's 'moral'! :)

"What some people fail to realise is that depicting something that happened isn’t the same as agreeing with it."

And that's the crucial point: I had various people around me while I was doing my Screenwriting MA who just couldn't disassociate the writer and the writing... one bloke got slated for writing a racist lead character but it didn't make the writer racist (but do it too often and people will wonder) but the film might seem to support racism... even if that wasn't what was intended. The shades of grey are also crucial and I would say that it's the culture (films) of 'black hats and white hats' that has helped put the world into the state that it's in: I call it John Wayne syndrome...

There are two things that you've put that confuse me a touch: Charlie Wilson is fighting "against an elected government"; which elected Government? I thought the USSR was a one party state like Iraq or China. "Consider the depiction of Jews by Wagner", this has long been debated by musicologists and none have been able to conclude whether Wagner actually did portray characters as Jewish stereotypes... which implies (to me at any rate) that, unlike Fagin, things in Wagner are not so clear cut.

However, please note, I'm not trying to be argumentative or even disagreeing with you...

A friend of mine saw the Charlie Wilson film despite loathing every fibre of Tom Hanks' being and still loved the it.

Robin Kelly said...

Elver, I obviously disagree but I am puzzled by the "there aren't any obstacles" bit.

He had to ask an Israeli to support The Mujahideen for a start. But that goal was a false goal anyway. When that changes to the true goal of re-building a peaceful secular Afghanistan, he has obstacles and the fails.

Rather than think of obstacles think of the conflicts, as there can be plenty of them even between people aiming for the same goal.

Jon, that's a good point about the moral thing but I meant if it's well written then it's easier to empathise with morally dubious characters despite huge character flaws. Dexter, the serial killer, comes to mind.

The Afghanistan government was elected who then invited in the USSR to help.

In regards to Wagner, I didn't know there was still a debate. I read it in the Guardian years ago that there was conclusive proof about The Ring but I can't find anything corroborating it.

In fact Wagner, although anti-semetic, had Jewish friends. However, he apparently manipulated some of his friends and borrowed money without paying it back so that's not saying much. The kind of complex character it might be worth doing a biography about...

Jon Peacey said...

I realised shortly after pressing 'publish' that I may have misinterpreted... Totally agree that if it's well-written you can create empathy with morally dubious and flawed characters. (If it's well-written you can get away with a quite a few things; including complete mistakes!)

"The Afghanistan government was elected who then invited in the USSR to help."
-as you might have guessed that was actually misreading by me... I must have jumped a line and hence got the impression you were saying the Soviet Union was democratically elected.

As for Wagner, the debate rumbles on and on... I've not seen conclusive evidence for there being anti-Semitic characters in the man's works- and he wasn't a man to keep his mouth shut on such things. Characters like the Niebelungen in the Ring have been pointed to but this has been widely dismissed; Klingsor in Parsifal has been pointed to but he's not more than the archetypal evil wizard type of centuries' of culture.

However, there is absolutely no doubt that Wagner was an absolutely horrible man (albeit one with great talent): not only an anti-Semite and a hypocrite (who often insisted on Jewish conducters to conduct his premieres), bad debtor, conman and adulterer; but also a 'would-be revolutionary' who had to exit his country pretty sharpish as he was about to be arrested for treason.

There's a 5-hour TV series by Tony Palmer starring Richard Burton as Wagner which is said to be very good... unfortunately, whenever I remember I'd like a copy I seem to be slightly impecunious.

I mentioned in discussion with a tutor my liking of Wagner's music and she told me how awful this was because he was a terrible man; later that week she mentioned a passion for Benjamin Britten... I chose not to mention that Britten is now conclusively known to have had a (apparently unrequited) sexual attraction to young boys (as was detailed in this book) and this is clear in many of Britten's operas (Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Turn Of The Screw, Death In Venice, if I remember rightly).

I've always maintained that it's really quite dangerous to delve too deeply into the private lives of great men (or women). You may not like who you find!

Robin Kelly said...

Mentioning Britten reminds me about Joe Orton.

Ever since I found out about Orton's child abuse holidays in Tangiers, years ago, I just refused to have anything to do with him or accept he had anything valid to say in his art.

Now I'm older and wiser, I can now now accept his plays might be good despite him being evil scum.

But reading them is still pretty low on my to-do list. The real test though would be if someone contemporary I admired turns out to be a paedophile. No delving by me necessary, as newspapers are constantly digging for such stuff now.

Elver said...

"The real test though would be if someone contemporary I admired turns out to be a paedophile."

Arthur C. Clarke and Stanislaw Lem have both been rumored to be pedophiles. There's some evidence to support these accusations, but nothing too concrete.

"No delving by me necessary, as newspapers are constantly digging for such stuff now."

I dunno about the press in your country, but here in Estonia pedophiles tend to be journalists. And since they're part of the journalist crowd -- a crowd of people that knows one another's secrets -- then it'd be very, very hard to find a journalist willing to write about another journalist who's a pedophile. Or, hell, even about pedophiles in general. Articles against pedophiles tend to result in anti-pedophile witch hunts, which puts fellow journalists at risk, and if a pedophile journalist goes down, he/she might take other journalists with him by exposing their secrets -- be they adultery, bribes, whatnot.

Journalism is not impartial or objective. I speak as an ex-journalist. There are some good people in this business, but a lot of scum uses it to hide who they really are.