Monday, January 07, 2008

Politics Schmolotics: A Droll CHARLIE WILSON & A Serious BREACH

Alan Rudolph: "Does Political scare you?" Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins): "Political doesn't scare me. Radical political scares me. Political political scares me. Alan Rudolph: "This is politiely politically radical, but it's funny." 
from Robert Altman's THE PLAYER.

Politics doesn't play well at the multiplex. 

If you don't believe me just ask the makers of LIONS FOR LAMBS. Despite critical acclaim people have stayed away in droves from just about every Iraq-related drama and especially documentary fare like NO END IN SIGHT as well so it appears that these days - political scares moviegoers. 

Keeping this in mind I made it out to the Lumina Theatre last week to see the Mike Nichols/Tom Hanks comic drama CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR (which actually at #6 on the box office charts is doing pretty well) and I cozied up to the warm DVD player to watch BREACH so consider me unafraid of political. Or at least political pop pieces like these:

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR (Dir. Mike Nichols, 2007)

The real life character of the charismatic senator famed for funding arms for Afghanistan against Soviet occupation is a tailor made role for Tom Hanks.

As Charlie Wilson, a charmer with a bevy of buxom secretaries, with always a stiff drink in hand, and a penchant for punchy one-liners like “You know you've reached rock bottom when you’re told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.”

Unfortunately the film is as glib as his character. Hanks glides through many West Wing-esque walk and talks (with the Aaron Sorkin scripting, of course, that’s got to be a given) and his scenes with Julia Roberts (as Texas socialite and activist Joanne Herring) with such a winking detachment that we never really feel invited in to his story, as fascinating on the surface as it is.

It starts out so promising. For instance Phillip Seymour Hoffman has a show-stopping shouting intro but then even he falls back into a laconic gruff presence.

At one point, as if to borrow the gravitas from a far better satirical standard barer, Ned Beatty shows up to give a speech which helps the proceedings a little but “Network” this ain't.

With the A-list gloss stripped away, Wilson's war story would be better told as a History Channel documentary.

Sure, it sucks that people opt for fake history bullshit like “National Treasure” over films based on such juicy real events, but when it's the too smug for fun “Charlie Wilson’s War” - moviegoers might be better off with cinematic junk food.

BREACH (Dir. Billy Ray, 2007) 

"He was trying to commit the intelligence equivalent of the perfect crime" says Paul Moore of his former collegue Robert Hanssen (from a MSNBC report enititled "Mole" included as a bonus feature on the just released DVD). 

Hanssen, who sold military secrets to Russia during the height of the cold war, has had his story told before (the 2002 TV movie MASTER SPY: THE ROBERT HANSSEN STORY starring William Hurt) but this time the perspective is through the eyes of an upstart FBI agent wannabe Eric O'Neill (a stoic but moody Ryan Philleppe). As Hanssen, Chris Cooper, in a career best performance, is suspicious but mostly oblivious to the scrutiny his position and power was undergoing. 

O'Neill is kept in the dark too at first - thinking that he's assigned to Hanssen because as he is told by a handler (Laura Linney) that he is a sexual deviant. Despite this he builds a grudging respect for the man and even believes that his superiors have no case. This naive view shatters as the world of Hanssen's making becomes mindblowingly clear. 

Some liberties were taken with the story - in actuality O'Neil knew going in what they were after Hanssen for - and a number of dramatic liberties are taken but the essence of the story remains sharply intact. Like Billy Ray's previous film - the excellent SHATTERED GLASS the tension has a palpable edge missing in a lot of current thrillers. BREACH is a quietly absorbing tightly told tale of homegrown espionage and one that never forgets or lets us forget how high the stakes are. 

More later...

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