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Charlie Wilson’s War is a political black comedy about a hard-drinking, cocaine snorting, womanizing congressman who conspires with a CIA agent with a tendency to tell his superiors to go fuck themselves, along with the Saudis, Israelis, Egyptians, and Pakistanis to wage a secret guerilla war in Afghanistan. It might seem at home on the shelf next to movies like Wag the Dog, or even Canadian Bacon.

Except for one thing . . . it’s all true.

Even the most unbelievable parts are true. Charlie Wilson really did take a Texas belly dancer to Egypt to entertain the Egyptian defense minister. Israel really did conspire with three Muslim countries to help aid an Islamic resistance movement. And Charlie Wilson really did almost singlehandedly set the U.S. on the path towards defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan over the vehement objections of some people in the CIA.

There’s much more to the story than can be told in a two hour movie of course. The book Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile, on which the movie is based, does an excellent job of telling the behind the scenes story of the funding of the Afghan war. Other books, like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, and The Main Enemy, by Milt Bearden, do an excellent job of telling how events unfolded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than Washington. However, Aaron Sorkin’s script really hits the high points and the important events. Unlike The Golden Compass, Charlie Wilson’s War is a textbook example of how to adapt a book for the screen, condensing the tale and capturing the feel, without needing to include every detail.

The movie also vividly portrays Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakotos, the two larger than life characters who turned American aid to the Afghans from an ineffective drizzle into a massive flood. Tom Hanks manages to capture both “Good Time Charlie”, the womanizing boozer, and the serious Charlie, who admired Winston Churchill and desperately wanted to accomplish something significant. Julia Roberts turns in an excellent performance as Joanne Herring, the conservative Christian socialite who set Charlie Wilson on course to become the Afghan’s greatest champion in Washington. Though Hanks and Roberts provide stiff competition, the best performance in the movie belongs to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as blue collar Greek-American CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. Hoffman is the star of every scene he’s in and his performance as Gust is definitely Oscar-worthy.

Charlie Wilson’s War has a snappy, funny, wittily worded Aaron Sorkin screenplay and excellent performances from three of the best actors around. It also provides a window into events that a lot of people in this country have forgotten about, or never knew in the first place. With America’s support, the Afghan war not only helped bring the Soviet Union to it’s knees, but our lack of follow through after the Red Army withdrew laid the seeds for the Taliban regime and provided a base for Al’Qaeda. As we face choices about how to proceed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lessons of these events loom large.

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The Golden Compass movie poster

A few weeks ago I went to see The Golden Compass, which is based on the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I’d read the trilogy a while back and thought it was pretty good, in part because it didn’t try to be Tolkienesque epic fantasy, unlike so many multivolume fantasy works these days. Pullman wrote it in part because he didn’t like the religious message in The Chronicles of Narnia, so it is often compared to the Narnia series, or labeled as the “anti-Narnia”, but I don’t think this comparison is particularly apt either. If you want a real anti-Narnia story, read “The Problem of Susan” by Neil Gaiman. His Dark Materials is really quite different and unique, which is a big part of its appeal for me.

The filmmakers have diligently scrubbed every bit of Pullman’s anti-religion message from The Golden Compass, though this hasn’t prevented religious groups from slamming the film. While I don’t agree with the religious criticisms, I still can’t recommend this movie. Even though His Dark Materials definitely isn’t Tolkienesque epic fantasy, it’s pretty clear that was what New Line Cinema was looking for when they bought the rights. They made fortune from The Lord of the Rings and they were clearly looking to replicate that success here. Despite His Dark Materials non-Tolkienesque origins, the filmmakers try quite hard to turn The Golden Compass into a Jacksonesque epic fantasy movie. Unfortunately Writer/Director Chris Weitz isn’t up to Peter Jackson’s standard.

The fundamental problem with the movie is its relentless pace. Scenes proceed only long enough to advance the plot, cramming in as much expository dialog as possible. Characters are shuffled on and off stage so quickly that only the primary protagonist Lyra Belacqua gets any real character development. Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot and Eva Green play characters who had major roles in the novel, but are reduced to little more than extended cameos in the film. The special effects team creates some stunning visuals that are a match for Weta Digital’s work on the Lord of the Rings, but we are rarely given enough time to appreciate these fantastic sights.

The Golden Compass is a very plot-heavy book, and virtually every plot point makes it into the movie. Some scenes have been reordered, but only one significant plot point was cut. In contrast, when Peter Jackson adapted the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the screen, he cut significant portions of the story. Tolkien fans howled at the omission of Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire, but the movies were the better for it. These cuts, combined with the Lord of the Rings films’ greater length, and the fact that Tolkien’s work was less plot heavy in the first place give the films of the Rings trilogy a very different pace. Fantastic scenes and creatures remain on the screen long enough for the audience to appreciate them. Secondary characters are well developed and not every line of dialog is dedicated to advancing the plot. The Golden Compass desperately needed similar treatment. Cutting some of the plot points, adding another hour to the running time, or some combination thereof would have made this a much better movie.

The one major plot point the filmmakers did leave out is the book’s ending. Since I want to avoid spoiling the book, I’ll just say that the book’s unexpected and fairly brutal conclusion plays a big part in setting the tone for the entire trilogy. Omitting it fundamentally changes the story in a way that cutting some of the intermediate plot points would not have. This is one plot point I would rather they hadn’t cut.

The Golden Compass had the potentially to be a good movie, but the relentless pacing and poor decisions on how to adapt the book for the screen have turned it into yet another disappointing fantasy film.

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