Tag: Ned Beatty

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Charlie Wilsons war
Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman plot to bring down communism in the misfiring satire Charlie Wilson’s War

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: Tom Hanks (Congressman Charlie Wilson), Julia Roberts (Joanne Herring), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gust Avrakotos), Amy Adams (Bonnie Bach), Ned Beatty (Congressman Doc Long), Christopher Denham (Michael G Vickers), Emily Blunt (Jane Liddle), Om Puri (President Zia-ul-Haq), Faran Tahir (Brigadier Rashid), Ken Stott (Zvi Rafiah), John Slattery (Henry Cravely)

Did Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) end the Cold War? Well no, of course he didn’t. But he might just have managed to make the US notice that Afghanistan had the potential to be the USSR’s very own Vietnam. Despite his reputation as a playboy, Wilson had a shrewd understanding of geopolitics and – encouraged by millionaire backer Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and helped by firey CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – arranges for money and arms to be pumped into the Afghan Mujahideen throughout the 1980s. Shame that funding stopped just as the Taliban emerged into the power vacuum.

There is a compelling film to be made here around how the US’s short-sighted policies in Afghanistan during the 1980s led to catastrophic implications in the 2000s. This isn’t that film. Instead Nichols – with some playful rat-a-tat dialogue from Aaron Sorkin – settles for a political caper, which only nods vaguely at the future disaster of 9/11 in favour of a feel-good, against-the-odds triumph. It’s a massive shame, as a third act which really embraced how policy failures in Afghanistan contributed to the rise of the Taliban and Al-Queda could have been compelling and thought provoking.

Watching this film you could come away with no real idea why the fighters the Wilson works so desperately to get defensive anti-aircraft missiles to, would end up recruiting young men to fly planes into buildings. The film nods at this, with Wilson failing to raise even a paltry million for investment in education and healthcare in Afghanistan post-Soviet occupation (after raising billions for weapons to fight the Soviets). But we don’t get a sense of the bigger picture here. How did hatred for the Russians, with the Americans as allies, flip into fury at the West? The film doesn’t want to think about it.

Instead this is a light bit-of-fluff. It’s a comic drama of the sort Hollywood loves: the playboy with immense depth. The hero whose heart melts at a refugee camp and dedicates himself to helping people. The film uses as a framing device a medal ceremony, with Wilson being praised for his vital role in bringing about the defeat of the USSR. It’s all feel-good – and for all we see at the end a brief moment of Wilson in tears at his failure to ‘finish the job’ by offering real hope to the Afghans – and that doesn’t feel like the whole story.

There is plenty of comedy though, even if the political awareness is light. Gust and Charlie’s first meeting is a well-staged farce of Wilson juggling geopolitics with heading off oncoming scandal, that requires Gust to frequently step in and out of his office as two different conversations take place. Comic material is mined from Wilson’s handpicked office staff of attractive women who, contrary to expectation, turn out to be brilliantly insightful and hyper-competent. CIA agent Gust is a gift of a role for Philip Seymour Hoffman (who is great fun) as a foul-mouthed, just-this-side-of-OTT maverick who genuinely cares about his job.

Hoffman fares better than the other two leads, both of whom feel miscast. The casting of Hanks and Roberts seems designed to keep a film that could have been a sharp attack on America’s world policy feeling as cosy as possible. After all, this is America’s uncle and America’s sweetheart: they couldn’t be part of geopolitical shenanigans! Sadly, Hanks doesn’t have the touch of smarm and cocksure lightness with depth the part needs (Tom Cruise would have been better). Julia Roberts seems too wholesome for a sexual femme fatale (Michelle Pfeiffer would have been better).

Nichols does keep the pace up and his direction is assured and professional. But this is a strange and toothless film which, after the initial energy of Wilson managing to get the funding the Afghans need, has no idea where to go. So instead it slowly drains out to nothingness. A late scene as Gust explains the dangers of abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban to Charlie (with the accompaniment of plane sounds on the soundtrack) hints at the film this could have been. But instead, this sticks for being a romp about how an unexpected hero changed the world. The fact it was partly for the worse doesn’t fit this narrative.

Nashville (1975)

nashville header
Robert Altman’s sprawling classic takes on a whole city in the brilliant Nashville

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: David Arkin (Norman), Barbara Baxley (Lady Pearl), Ned Beatty (Del Reese), Karen Black (Connie White), Ronee Blakley (Barbara Jean), Timothy Brown (Tommy Brown), Keith Carradine (Tom Frank), Geraldine Chaplin (Opal), Robert Du Qui (Wade Cooley), Shelley Duvall (Martha), Allen Garfield (Barnett), Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton), Scott Glenn (Pfc Kelly), Jeff Goldblum (Tricycle Man), Barbara Harris (Winifred), David Hayward (Kenny), Michael Murphy (John Triplette), Allan F. Nicholls (Bill), Dave Peel (Bud Hamilton), Cristina Raines (Mary), Bert Remsen (Star), Lily Tomlin (Linnea Reese), Gwen Welles (Sueleen Gay), Keenan Wynn (Mr Green)

Robert Altman’s magnum opus, Nashville has the city has its set and, seemingly, its entire population as the cast. Over the course of a few days, Nashville charts the interweaving lives of a host of people making (or trying to make) a living in the home of country and western and the hangers on and fans flocking around the edges. Meanwhile a presidential campaign plays out, trying to recruit stars as fund-raisers.

You could say that, on the surface, Nashville isn’t really about anything. Certainly, it’s plot (such as it is) is more based on observing our characters interacting with and responding to events. Wonderfully rich short stories overlap each other, the focus mothing smoothly from one and another. It’s not really grounded in an overarching plot, such as McCabe and Mrs Miller or The Long Goodbye. In many ways its more similar to M*A*S*H, an experience piece trying to capture the thoughts and emotions of a particular moment of time. It’s that which I think is the heart of it. Nashville is about very little, but really it’s about everything – and it’s one of the most enlightening and vital studies of twentieth century America you are ever going to see. A rich and fascinating insight into a particular point in history, in a country rife with tensions.

You can’t escape that Nashville takes place in an America under the shadow of traumatic events. The 1970s (and the legacy of the 1960s) has pulled America further apart than ever. It’s a country struggling with a wave of assassinations, still deeply scared by the sacrifice of JFK (several characters, most notably Barbara Bexley’s permanently intoxicated Lady Pearl, reflect on the loss of innocence that came with it). Scott Glenn’s uniform clad army private is only the most visual reminder that the country is being ripped apart by Vietnam. Bubbling racial tensions are captured by short-order cook Wade (a lovely performance by Robert Du Qui) who angrily denounces black country singer Tommy Brown (a suave Timothy Brown) as an Uncle Tom.

Politically, America isn’t heading anywhere. The film is continuously framed by a car literally driving around in circles, blaring out meaningless platitudes straight from the lips of Hal Phillip Walker a third-party Presidential candidate who is against a lot of stuff (lawyers in congress and the Election College) but doesn’t seem to be ‘for’ anything. His smooth advance man John Triplette (Michael Murphy, quietly unimpressed by the music stars around him) drums up musicians to appear at a benefit – not one of whom even ask about the politics of the man they are being asked to endorse. Nashville isn’t a film that feels particularly enamoured either with politics or the level of our engagement with it.

Instead there is a new religion in town: fame. The musicians of Nashville at the time were unhappy with the film, feeling that Altman planned an attack on their industry. Altman is, of course, smarter than this. Of course, there are some satirical blows landed – but the film has respect and admiration for artists with genuine talent. Its real criticism is for fakes and poseurs (of which more later). But for the talents at the centre, sure they are flawed – but there is a respect for their skills and genuineness that keeps the film relatable. (Altman would be far more vicious when he turned his eyes to Hollywood with The Player).

The artists at its heart are flawed but human. Haven Hamilton (a grandiose Henry Gibson) may be a blow-hard reactionary, but his patriotic pride and sense of personal responsibility is genuine (late in the film he will ignore a serious injury to show concern for others). At the film’s centre is fragile super-star Barbara Jean (a delicate Ronee Blakely), the beloved super-star teetering on the edge of a dangerous breakdown, overwhelmed with the pressures of fame and expectation. A lonely person, reduced to trying to communicate her unease to her audiences in rambling monologues. Looking for a human connection she’s unable to make elsewhere (this makes for a neat contrast with her rival, Karen Black’s bubbly but coolly distant Connie White who knows where to draw the line between public and private).

This humanity also makes for intriguing personal dilemmas. Singing trio Tom (a swaggering Keith Carradine), Bill (a frustrated Allan F Nicholls) and Mary (a saddened Cristina Raines) are in the middle of a love triangle (caused by Mary’s love for Tom, who loves the attention but doesn’t return the favour). Made more tense by Tom’s desire to go solo, the couple’s tensions are never firmly resolved – part of Altman’s avoiding of neat endings. Tom himself, in many ways a shallow lothario, is also shown to be feeling the same loneliness and emptiness as others.

It’s interesting that the film’s warmest character, Lily Tomlin’s Linnea, lies half-way between the world of the music and the world of normal life. A dedicated performer of gospel with an all-Black choir, Linnea also works tirelessly at home to support her two deaf children (who attract very little interest from their father, would-be fixer Ned Beatty). Linnea though is never portrayed as someone trapped in her life, in the way others are, but in complete acceptance – and even contentment – with her lot. Similar to Keenan Wynn’s grieving husband, desperate for his niece to engage with her aunt’s illness, the film’s real warmth is for those people grounded in real-life worries.

The film’s real fire is saved for the shallow wannabes that flock around the edges. The music stars may be flawed but they have talent (as witnessed by the film showcasing almost an hour of musical performance in its runtime – all the songs written and performed by the stars). Shelley Duvall’s would-be groupee is hilariously empty-headed and selfish. Ned Beatty’s greasy-pole climbing political animal is ridiculously pompous. At the top of the pile is Geraldine Chaplin’s reporter, an empty headed fame obsessive, hilariously fawning to the rich and famous and abrupt and rude to ‘the staff’, pontificating emptily in a car junkyard. Is she even a real reporter or just a fantasist?

Altman’s film also finds time for two very different women trying to find fame in this heartland of country and western. Sueleen Gray (Gwen Welles) is a waitress carefully cultivating all the patter of a star, but lacking the key attribute – talent. So desperate is she to ‘make it’ that she is willing to be exploited for a big chance, with only Wade having the decency to tell her she should cut her losses (advice she bats away in anger). By contrast, Barbara Harris’ Albuquerque, running from her husband to find fame, has the talent but never gets the opportunities – until of course at the very end (and it’s the result of the tragic fate of another woman whose doomed fate hangs over the film).

Nashville is a rich character study, but all these characters link back into an America at a turning point in its cultural history. Detached and disillusioned with politics, this is a country that is starting to see fame – and the indulgence of your own passions and desires – as the new religion. A religion that attracts both wannabes and also stalkers and dangerous obsessives (at least two of whom populate the film, one with fatal consequences). In this world, as idealism dies and is replaced by cynicism, people start to check out and either engage more with their own problems or yearn to change their lives and become something else. Altman’s film captures this moment in time personally, as well as being a compelling melting pot of stories. A rich, multi-layered tapestry – of which a review can only scratch the surface – it’s a great film.

Network (1976)

Peter Finch rants and raves in media satire masterpiece Network

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher), Jordan Charney (Howard Hunter), William Prince (Edward Ruddy), Lane Smith (Robert McDonough), Marlene Warfiedl (Laureen Hobbs)

Is there any movie ever made that has been more prescient than Network? So spot-on was its vision of television becoming pushed to extremes by its obsession with ratings that when it was screened a few years ago for a group of teenagers in America, they allegedly didn’t realise it was meant to be a satire. I’m also pretty sure you would have to go a long way to find a better written movie – it’s no surprise that this has been converted into a successful play, it’s basically one already.

In the 1970s, UBS is a struggling TV network trying to find a niche among the giants. Its news show is losing its timeslot in the ratings – which is bad news for its respected anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Informed he will be fired due to falling ratings, Beale goes on air and casually announces he will blow his brains out live on air next week. When this sends the ratings rocketing, the network sends him back on air, encouraging him to speak his mind more rather than just report the facts. When Beale suffers a full blown breakdown, his anti-establishment rants touch a public nerve and Beale becomes a ratings smash – with the news show taken over by ambitious Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Head of Entertainment, who turns it into a bizarre light entertainment show, with the increasingly unhinged Beale the main entertainment. It’s perfect for everyone – so long as the ratings hold…

Network could so easily have become a shrill, OTT satire. Writing down the plot summary there, it even reads like that – a big, stupid, pleased-with-itself film that hits its points hard and where every character is a grotesque caricature. But that’s not the case here. This is a brilliantly written film – Paddy Chayevsky is surely one of the greatest writers in film history – a fiercely intelligent piece of satire, which most importantly crafts its characters with empathy and understanding. Some of them may be larger than life, and some of them may do things that are just this side of heightened reality, but at heart they all feel real. The film is shot through with heart and a sense of realism that underpins the razor sharp satire.

And that satire is all around the world of television. So astonishingly prescient is the film about the rise of reality TV, ratings obsessed and lacking in real soul, that many of its jokes pass by almost unrecognised today. Respected news producer Max Schumacher’s throwaway line about an hour of network TV drama being made up of films of car chases (and crashes) from the police? Done to death already. The idea (again unthinkable in the 1970s) that a news anchor could litter the air with their own opinions on the news and current affairs – half the anchors in America now run their shows like editorial pieces. The concept that the public could be entertained by watching someone clearly not completely normal, throwing crazed statements at the camera – it could only be a fantasy right? A TV network completely in thrall to its corporate masters, following the line from the bosses? Yup surely that could never happen.

What Chayevsky does so well is turn these into masterpieces of rhetoric. Some of the greatest speeches ever written in film appear here, and they work because not only do they showcase some superb writing, but also every moment is crammed with ideas and real genuine feeling. Howard Beale may well be as mad as hell and not going to take it any more – but he articulates his reasons for feeling this with an acute emotional reality. Schumacher’s paens to the changing world of television, and his own lost place in it, are beautifully done. Diana’s ratings obsessed spewing of TV related facts and figures is sharply underpinned by our awareness all the time of the emotional reality of her near-inevitable emotional breakdown (surely only a few years at most down the line).

Given these lines, the acting is extraordinary (it won three of the acting Oscars in 1967). There isn’t a duff beat or performance in this film, and the delivery of the high-blown dialogue is simply outstanding, brilliantly directed by Lumet who was always a highly skilled director of actors. In fact, Lumet is often easy to overlook here, but his understanding of the material, and handling of its message and delivery, is a big reason for why it never becomes overbearing or trying. Away from the leads, he also gets superb performances from Duvall (chilling and on the verge of rage in every scene as the corporate suit who really calls the shots), Beatty (who had basically one speech, worked a day, and got an Oscar nomination) and Straight as Schumacher’s wife (who went one better than Beatty and won the Oscar for her one scene – the shortest Oscar-winning performance ever at just a few minutes).

Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his role in this film – ill health restricted his “mad as hell” speech into only two takes (an extraordinary thought when you watch it). Beale is a gift of a part, an intelligent, compelling piece of showmanship – but Finch’s gift is to make the part feel real and human under the genius dialogue. The early scenes showcase Beale clearly struggling with depression, under the smiles, and already starting to crack. I love the way Lumet often frames Finch during these scenes – in group scenes he’s often to the edge of events, and he only slowly comes to the fore to gain a close up. Heck most of his first outburst on television is only seen by us on a viewing monitor in the control room (only the viewer seems to be listening by the way – the technicians are either gossiping or mechanically going through the motions of running the live broadcast, including countdowns to commercials).

Finch basically steals the movie, because you can’t shake from your mind his delivery of scenes like this one:

It’s even harder to believe that so many actors turned down the role – perhaps worried that it would seem like a pantomime role. One of those actors was William Holden – and thank goodness he did, because his grounded, bitter, crumpled, but still idealistic Max Schumacher is one of the film’s highlights. Holden gives one of his greatest performances – often overlooked under the flashy roles of Finch and Dunaway – making Schumacher the still centre of the film and, by its end, something approaching its powerless voice of conscience. 

Faye Dunaway (also Oscar-winning) makes a great deal of the demonic role of Diana Christianson, the representative of the next generation of TV producers, concerned only with ratings over morals. It’s probably the least “real” of the characters, but Dunaway finds the vulnerability and fragility carefully hidden under Diana’s chilly self-confidence and ruthlessness. 

It’s Diana who drives the film, overseeing the transformation of the news hour into a bizarre variety show (including a soothsayer, amongst a host of eccentric magazine feature slots) where Beale is bought on to rant about the emptiness of our world and the horrors of our soulless age like some sort of dancing bear, his inevitable fainting fits greeted by roars of applause. (“What are you?” asks the warm up man of the studio audience “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” they delightedly cheer back).

The film runs a particularly dark streak alongside this with Diana’s plan to build a solid hour of entertainment every week from an embedded camera crew following the exploits of a gang of radical Marxist black-pantherist terrorists. The film gets a lot of slightly more obvious satirical material from this – the terrorists quickly lose their Marxist principles in hilarious fights around things like negotiating syndication rights – but its vision of television turning real-life horrors (repackaged) into entertainment for the masses is only a few degrees shy of where many channels have ended up today. 

That’s the whole film – sharply intelligent about where the world is heading, but balancing this with a genuine sense of humanity and emotional intelligence around its characters. If Chayevsky’s screenplay – or Lumet’s direction – hit us over the head with the points the film was trying to make, we’d quickly switch it off. Instead it makes its points with wit and a sense of reality that makes it both horrifying and entertaining. But then it would always have its place in film history with that dialogue and the acting it inspires from the cast. Most of the actors give their best ever work here, and the script is one of the finest around. As for the view of television – well, if we haven’t reached where Network was by now, it’s surely only a few minutes in the future.