Mike Nichols’ film career as a director has been as long as it is varied. In fact I find many of his films to be either overrated, such as The Graduate (1967), Catch-22 (1970), Heartburn (1986), Wolf (1994), and The Birdcage (1996), or simply just bad movies (Wit, Biloxi Blues, The Day Of The Dolphin). Only a desperate handful of his films seem to have any significance today, primarily Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Fortune (1975) and Primary Colors (1998), yet with one exception none of these films approaches contemporary social issues with a political agenda. Which brings us to Nichols’ most recent film Charlie Wilson’s War (2008), a film that attempts to be just as political as Primary Colors or even Catch-22 but manages, thanks mostly to the script by Aaron Sorkin, to do very little except to trivialize major issues and condescend to the audience.
Consider this, the character of Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) is never given a truly intimate moment of screen with another character. Wilson is never allowed to be vulnerable, instead he hovers above reality as a sort of larger than life all American Hero who, like in the Frank Capra films of the thirties, has come from an unlikely place. The likeability and the sincerity of the Charlie Wilson character is totally derived from Tom Hanks’ role as a visual signifier to his audience. This runs counter to the central narrative mechanism of Primary Colors whose every concern was with the private and the intimate and therefore with the “real” human element of it’s story. The short hand story telling and character development of Charlie Wilson’s War, particularly when compared to the naturalism of Elaine May’s screenwriting on Primary Colors, appears to be the product of Sorkin’s television career where time is of the essence and this kind of cinematic short hand a necessity.
Getting beyond the character writing of Charlie Wilson’s War and into the political message of the film the same issue arises. It takes ninety minutes for Charlie Wilson to beat the Soviet Union, and ten additional minutes for the film to deliver “the moral of the story”. The blunt delivery of this moral, acted out between Hanks and Hoffman and then written across a title card before the end credits, goes something a long the line of “after the USA engages in a covert operation it should stick around and help rebuild a victimless country”. There is nothing subtle about the film’s delivery, nor is there much depth to this argument depicted in the film. This is, perhaps, Mike Nichols’ first and only message film (a message film, at least by my own definition, is a film whose singular purpose for existing is to communicate to an audience one very specific idea). In this way Nichols and Sorkin negate any meaningful exchange with their audience, this argument pivots on a single point of view with no counter argument at all, and are instead instructing the audience on how to understand and react to American Foreign Policy in the eighties.
In terms of a historical depiction of the eighties in the film and the international political environment it becomes clear that Nichols opted to make Sorkin’s message-script the priority and relegated any historical context and information to a few soundtrack cues including David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. The fact that the film only ever draws a comparison to Vietnam three times is indicative of the kind of one trick pony Charlie Wilson’s War turned out to be.