Charlie Wilson's War (15)<br/>4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (15)

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The Independent Culture

Hollywood goes to war again, but instead of the hand-wringing sincerity of Lions for Lambs we now have the laughter and larks of Charlie Wilson's War, based on a true story and a reminder to itself that the USA has sometimes used its bullying power on the global stage for good. And instead of Redford, Streep and Cruise, there's the A-list pairing of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts to give its patriotic boost a little stardust. The wonder is that so light and frothy a confection should leave such an awful taste in the mouth.

The conscience of Charlie Wilson (Hanks), a Democratic congressman from Texas, is first awoken to the plight of Afghanistan sometime in the early 1980s when he sees a TV report on the Russian invasion. That he happens to be watching it while gargling Scotch in a hot tub surrounded by strippers gives us a measure of the man: he's a sleazeball charmer who regards the world as his playground and calls his bevy of secretaries "jailbait".

A hit with the ladies, he is seduced by reactionary Texan socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts) into helping the Afghan resistance, the Mujahideen, with funding and weapons to fight the Soviet occupation. His other ally in this endeavour is the truculent CIA agent Gust (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who guides him through the minefield of counterintelligence and covert ops.

Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin, the film in its early stages coasts along on snappy dialogue ("Why is Congress saying one thing and doing another?" "Tradition, mostly") and light comedy – Charlie's first meeting with Gust is a silly but enjoyable bit of to-ing and fro-ing.

Of the three principals, Hoffman is the pick, a tubby bundle of energetic resentment and illusionless patter. The part of Charlie ought to be a blast, but this being a Hanks performance there's a definite cordon sanitaire thrown around him: we never actually see Charlie snort coke or paw a breast, even when some nubile lovely (Emily Blunt) serves herself up in his penthouse. It's the pretence of debauchery, not the real thing. Roberts is thin in all senses, her doe-eyed loveliness at odds with a frightful peroxide hairdo and a sense that the society lady she's impersonating was actually tougher than old boots. Stockard Channing would have eaten up the part and asked for more.

But it's not miscasting that undoes this movie in the end. The combination of political jockeying, romantic mischief and Cold War conflict means the tone can hardly settle from one scene to the next, and the spectacle of Charlie embarrassing himself in front of Pakistani generals next to a pull-away shot of a massive refugee crisis just feels shabby. One accepts that Charlie might well have brokered an arms deal between warring Israelis and Egyptians while a belly-dancer gyrated among them, but it doesn't sit with his visit to a hospital where limbless Afghan children recount their experiences of landmines.

As for the wahooing triumphalism of Charlie et al on hearing that their sponsored missiles have just destroyed three Soviet helicopters, one wonders if it's the Afghan fightback that's being celebrated or the usual American appetite for commie-bashing.

Only at the end, when Hoffman's spook warns that the Afghans will regard their saviour as Allah and not the US, does the film acknowledge the danger such meddling may entrain. If Allah can rid them of one superpower, then why not another? The ghost of September 11 is everywhere present. A postscript ruefully adds: "We fucked up the endgame" – if only it were that simple. Charlie Wilson's War sounds a note of culpability, but it gets lost amid the whoops of self-congratulation.

I realise that a Romanian drama about an abortion will be a tough sell, but Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is, truly, a movie of devastating emotional impact. Set in the dark days of 1987, before Ceausescu's rule met its ignominious end, it is the story of a medical emergency that gathers into an existential crisis. It begins in a student dormitory, where two young women are planning some sort of trip. By degrees it emerges that Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is pregnant and her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is helping her get an abortion, all but illegal back then for women under 40. If the bureaucratic interference and the black-market trading don't get you down, then the leaking grey skies of Eastern Europe surely must.

Mungiu works in long sequences with a camera whose fixed stare makes great demands of his actors. They respond magnificently, first in the long and appalling scene in a hotel room where the women negotiate a price with the surly abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) who knows exactly how to exploit their terror ("If you call an ambulance we're halfway to prison"); then in a later scene when Otilia visits her boyfriend and finds herself in the middle of his mother's raucous birthday dinner, surrounded by strangers. The way the camera just holds on Marinca's face, taut with anxiety over her friend back at the hotel and stung by the condescension of her hosts, is an object lesson in narrative patience and wordless acting.

The film is a kind of companion piece to Cristi Puiu's tragicomedy The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), another Romanian dark-night-of-the-soul that puts the country high on the list of Least Desirable Places to Live in Europe. It would take a brave programmer to put them on a double bill, and an even braver soul to watch it.

Certainly it's a gruelling experience, but there are two ways of looking at this. You could say it's simply an indictment of an iniquitous state system that exposed its people to needless danger and misery; or you could regard it as a portrait of sisterly camaraderie at its most selfless. Greater love hath no woman than to risk all for a friend's abortion – as will be understood once you see this remarkable film.

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