Sometimes I watch a movie and a week later I have forgotten everything except for one single scene. Do you have that, too? After watching Charlie Wilson's War, I forgot everything except for a handful of masterful scenes and the 'zen master' ending. Our movie moment is to me the number one standout scene; it is also an instant classic and it shows expert use of dramatic construction, exposition and subtext.
GOOD MOVIE – GREAT SCENE
Charlie Wilson's War is by all standards a solid film, but you will concur that it is not a great movie. If a piece of work with this star power doesn’t reach a mainstream, you can’t blame anyone but the filmmakers. In my view, the culprit is one of our greatest living screenwriters, even though the group of this film's aficionados is largely overlapping with Aaron Sorkin's fan base. If you love dialogue and political intrigue, and you can smile – wryly - at the relentless bungling and moral murkiness of American politics, then you may be(come) a fan too.
WHY DIDN'T IT WORK?
The film shows Texan Congressman Charlie Wilson's relentless lobbying in the arms race during the Soviet-Afghan war. What started as a covert operation with a budget of $5m spins out of control to an all-out war effort spending at least a hundred times that amount. With stars like Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Blunt, a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Mike Nichols at the helm, this is nothing short of a dream team. Yet the movie never made its money back at the US box office.
In my view, the reason the film didn't work is because its ending is ironic, both in the Robert McKee sense of the word as in the literal meaning. Wilson wins his war, but at the end of the film we are reminded of where the resources of this arms race ended up: with the Mujahideen - and by extension the Taliban.
FLAWED MOVIE - GREAT SCENES
It would be interesting to study the structure of Sorkin’s recent movies because I have a feeling the overall story sometimes veers away from the classical cinematic structure. With The Social Network, this worked; here it doesn’t.
But failed films often have moments of magic, too. This movie moment from Charlie Wilson is dear to my heart. I totally love this scene’s amazing construction: it has a classical three-act structure, a great climax, and it clocks off at a healthy three minutes. In the scripts I get to read from inexperienced screenwriters, I rarely find a well-constructed, meaty, dramatic scene. Influenced by the kinetic editing rhythm of today’s action movies, scenes are often kept too short. A great movie needs to breathe, with a musical rhythm of building tension, culminating in a sequence climax that runs for longer than the average scene.
HERO FOR ONE SCENE: GUST
Interestingly, the best scene of the movie doesn’t show the protagonist; it introduces the supporting character of CIA spy Gust. In a spectacular collision between Gust and his superior Cravely, we learn all there is to know about Gust. His CV is substantial, yet we happily swallow the expositional subtext while the drama keeps us at the edge of our seat. The exposition is indeed subtextual because the scene is really about an apology. When Gust arrives at the Langley office, however, the last thing he wants to do is apologise. Complications ensue. (Warning for strong language!)