Friday, December 5, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Mike Nichols

The Nichols Negation (The Wars between Men and Women)

There used to be a time when film directors didn't start out as film-directors—going to "film-school," watching films to crib (how do you cheat on an exam in film-school?)—but actually having another career and making a life before hiding behind the camera. Mike Nichols (real name: Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky) started out as a comic, writing and performing with The Compass Players improv group, refining that with his partner Elaine May, then moving to Broadway (where he and May had performed in their own show) in the early 60's, making a name for himself directing the early establishing work of Neil Simon,* and then, having conquered The Great White Way, branching off to Hollywood, making his film-directing debut with a hot and controversial play-property headlined by "Liz and Dick."

No pressure.

By the time of his second film, The Graduate, he was being hailed as "the new Orson Welles," whom he cast in his third film, an ambitious, elephantine adaptation of Joseph Heller's black-comedy war novel "Catch-22."  But, it was Nichols' first relative failure, eclipsed by Robert Altman's earlier-released M*A*S*H.  It set up a pattern where Nichols' fortunes would rise and fall depending on each film. If a film did not catch the box-office fire, Nichols would return to the stage as producer/director, where his output was prodigious...and lucrative.

Nichols was one of those few individuals with an EGOT designation—winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards through the course of his life.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967) Nichols was having trouble getting The Graduate off the ground, so he "settled" (as if one could call it "settling") for a film version of Edward Albee's notoriously scorching play about emotionally stunted academics throwing stones inside their glass-encrusted ivory towers as his film-directing debut. That he had the "hottest" couple in Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as George and Martha (played on Broadway by the less-gossiped-about Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill) amped up the mega-wattage on this film, as both thesp's were deliberately "de-glammed" for the parts (aided and abetted by George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the balls of yarn they play with), filmed in a claustrophobic black-and-white. Never has so much klieg-light star-power been channeled so precisely into laser-like focus than the two stars' work in this film. Everybody is brilliant in it, but none more so than the legendary Taylor, who lets her movie-star persona drop as she plays Martha as if she grew up on a steady diet of Bette Davis movies, and there's no hint of Shakespearean grandeur in Burton's bespectacled prof, only a steadfast earnestness in the midst of combat fatigue. Haunting film. Sad, sad, sad.

The Graduate (1968) Never has there been a movie so misunderstood. But, as it was only Nichols' second film, audiences hadn't gotten used to "The Nichols Complexity" yet. The Graduate used such a dazzling array of structural, editing and movie-tricks that one could forgive the attention to the surface detail which reveled in the possibilities of movie-making. Plus, the movie was a film geared to "The Youth Culture," and there was something naively direct about its young audience, that seemed deaf to sub-text or irony.

Their loss.

Newly graduated honors student Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman—not his film debut, but he rocketed to fame here) must negotiate the doldrums of the goal-less shoals of life after college, including pressure from his parents, an affair with his father's business partner's wife (Anne Bancroft) and (as if that wasn't complicated enough) falling in love with their daughter (Katherine Ross). Hoffman's waif is a loose cannon on deck, disrupting the tidy if miserable lives of his parents' generation, and finally finds the spark in Ross. Too bad she's already engaged. For all the visceral joy of the film's ending, Nichols undercuts it with a final shot that happened by accident as the re-united Benjamin and Elaine realize there's a future in front of them they might not be ready to handle. Parts seem creaky now, but overall, it's a great, great film.
Happy accident: Nichols never yelled "Cut" and the confused, uncertain
looks across the faces of actors Ross and Hoffman spoke volumes

Catch-22 (1970) Orson Welles really wanted to make a film of Joseph Heller's seminal book, but had to settle for a cameo as General Dreedle in this all-star adaptation by Nichols and his adapter of The Graduate, Buck Henry. Apparently, the filming was chaotic—too many stars languishing in the forlorn Guaymas, Mexico location (standing in for WWII Italy), while DP David Watkin waited for the perfect light at 2 in the afternoon, at which point they'd get a couple of shots in...and quit for the day. The shoot went on for a very long time, the complex editing strategy maybe longer, but Henry and Nichols' palimpsest has a good feel for the novel, if it misses the mark on occasion while, not too ironically, hitting things a bit broadly.

The photography, however, was worth waiting for—Watkins work on the film is amazing, as is Alan Arkin's star-turn as Yossarian (Arkin actually is more Yossarian than others) and an all-star cast in various stages of success. There are sequences of sheer brilliance in this for all the moments that fall flat.**

That's some catch, that Catch-22.
Nichols and cast in Guaymas

Carnal Knowledge (1972) Of ball-breakers and bull-shit artists. For such an explicit title, there's not much sex going on in Jules Ffeiffer's screenplay (except for the end, and that's talk, too). Nope. Everything's very oblique in this one, all the sexual activity happens off-screen or before or after an edit,*** and Nichols extends that to just about everything—conversations happen off-screen, and we mostly see the reactions of everyone who gets left out of the focus and see the way they crumble. The point on this one is not carnal knowledge, but the destruction of those left in its wake and it's the women (particularly Candice Bergen—coming out of her icy shell with the first of a series of great performances, and Ann-Margret, whose heart-breaking performance garnered her an Oscar nomination and a career resurgence) who lose in the game of seduction that the men plot and scheme their hours away over. Nicholson is at the height of snarky loathsomeness, playing the most socio-pathetic of cads, while Art Garfunkle (of "Simon and...") plays a callow lad looking for love, as long as it's below the waist and isn't too complicated. Like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with an icy, static camera that offers no commentary, it shows the thaw that comes after carnal knowledge, in the form of communal ignorance and atrophied convictions and desires, with no attempt to set things right.

The Day of the Dolphin (1973) "Maureen," Nichols told Maureen Stapleton, who was co-starring on-stage with George C. Scott in in the Nichols-directed "Plaza Suite" (another Neil Simon play) "everybody's afraid of George!" Scott, the voluble actor who was riding the crest of popularity after his Oscar-win (and shunning) for Best Actor for Patton, was intimidating, so Nichols cast him in this project (adapted by Nichols' scenarist for The Graduate and Catch-22, Buck Henry), which was a long-in-the-crafting film for Roman Polanski. The Day of the Dolphin killed two birds with one stone—the project was slight and needed Scott's considerable gravitas, and Scott needed a project that was lighter as he seemed to be trapped in "angry-man" parts. Still, it's an odd, disappointing film about a research scientist (Scott) who teaches two dolphins to talk—in a cloying baby-English—only to find his work used by shady conspirators to kill the President of the United States (Richard Nixon was President at the time—he even screened it in The White House. That must have been awkward). Um. Yeah. Not sure why these guys didn't go to Sea-World for the project, as the last thing you would want to carry out an assassination plot is morally un-compromised animals who can talk doing your dirty work (especially considering that they haven't learned the concept of "at this point in time"). The French novel on which this was based had none of the action-movie trappings foisted on this film and was more of an intellectual exercise. There's very little intellect going on here, and I remember my heart sinking like a stone when the audience let out a collective "Awwwww" when the "lead" dolphin, Alpha, first breaks water and coos "Paaaaaah!" to Scott. Oy! Unfortunately, this film is a muttish "Shaggy Dog" version of The Day of the Jackal. Amusing concept, but bad idea for a movie.

The Fortune (1975) Warren Beatty's fortunes were waning slightly and his buddy Nicholson's were as hot as they could be—he'd just seen his star rise to leading man status from Chinatown—but the performer who steals this slight con-man farce (written by Nicholson friend Carol Eastman) from the two superstars is Stockard Channing (after a stunning TV-lead performance in Joan Rivers' hilarious black comedy of "The Girl Most Likely To...") as an heiress in love with the already-married Beatty, who conspire to continue their affair across state lines (violating the Mann Act) by marrying Nicholson's hapless embezzler. It must have seemed attractive to Columbia Pictures—to whom Beatty promised the film if they made Shampoo—after the very popular and Oscar-winning The Sting but the film just doesn't work, as Beatty and Nicholson are trying so hard for comedy that they tend to bludgeon the material into the ground, and Nichols is probably not manic enough a director to carry it off. Despite the star power it was a failure at the box-office, and Nichols ceased making films for eight years and returned to Broadway, where he directed one woman shows for Gilda Radner and Whoopi Goldberg...and the original Broadway production of a little musical...called "Annie."

Gilda Live! (1980) It is officially listed as a "documentary" in the IMDB when it is actually a filmed version of Radner's one-woman Broadway show that Nichols directed. But whatever you want to call it, it is a record of Radner in full flower, not relegated to second-fiddle on "Saturday Night Live!" (where she debuted as one of the original "Not-Ready-For-Prime-time-Players" or in her subsequent film-roles as "the girlfriend" in the series of movies she made afterwards. 

This is the comedian-actress at full throttle, charming, gifted, and hilarious. Whatever came after, her marriage to Gene Wilder, her stoic, and public battles with cancer, this is Gilda Radner as she should be remembered, in the prime of health and talent, taken from us far too soon, but preserved for all eternity at her shining best. 

Cute, but NSFW

Silkwood (1983) Two words: Kerr-McGee. Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) is an employee for the Kerr-McGee Cimmaron Fuel Fabrication Site in Cimmaron City, Oklahoma. Divorced, accused of not taking care of her kids, living with a lesbian friend, Dolly (Cher), Kerr-McGee is all she can get, as she's not the best employee, always showing up late for her shift and from breaks. Kerr-McGee makes plutonium fuel rods and they're behind on a contract to provide fuel for Hanford, and so the employees are starting to work double shifts. Silkwood joins Union representatives to try and improve conditions, taking on the responsibility for her co-workers in lieu of her kids. Amazing cast (including Kurt Russell, Craig T. Nelson, Ron Silver, David Straithairn, Fred WardBruce McGill and Tess Harper) working with a script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, based on the true-life mystery of Karen Silkwood's death.  

Everybody does great work here (especially Cher and Russell), with Streep forsaking the period roles she was doing after her career bloomed to make a real-live human being out of Silkwood, who found her life becoming a nightmare of nuclear proportions in the wake of her union work and whistle-blowing on Kerr-McGee, who seemed to be in the business of controlling livelihoods and taking lives.

Again, cute but NSFW

Heartburn (1986) Nichols' adaptation of Nora Ephron's novelized summation of her marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein features two of the director's favorite performers—Streep and Nicholson (replacing the originally cast Mandy Patinkin). Streep had made her name as a drama-queen, but teaming her with Nicholson lightened her technique considerably.

In this, La Streep plays Rachel Samstat, a food columnist for a New York publisher who meets Washington journalist Mark Forman at a friend's wedding. The two have a whirlwind courtship, then a whirlwind marriage that results in two kids and a Georgetown brownstone in constant need of renovation. Should have looked at the foundation of the marriage first, as Forman can't resist sneaking off for an affair. Always memorable to me was his oft-used excuse for disappearing: "I'm just gonna go buy some socks." Despite the considerable talent involved (a theme consistent in Nichols filmography), the movie doesn't quite come together and as Pauline Kael wrote: "After awhile, the scenes that don't point anywhere begin to add up and you ask yourself: 'What is this movie about?'"

Heartburn does feature a score written by Carly Simon and marks the movie debuts of Tony Shalhoub and one Kevin Spacey, who Nichols would use again.

Biloxi Blues (1988) Nichols, who directed the first of Neil Simon's plays ("Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple") on Broadway, returns to the author's domain with this film adaptation of the second of Simon's semi-autobiographical "Eugene" plays, with the kid who found fortune playing the playwright's fictional self in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," Matthew Broderick, returning to the part of Eugene Morris Jerome that he first essayed on stage in "Brighton" and "Biloxi Blues."

Also from the original stage cast, there is a great performance (even Oscar-nominated) by Christopher Walken who, as a sadistic D.I., may be more than just a little crazy.

Biloxi Blues is a slight film, although it does do Simon's play some justice. It should be noted for Nichols' period detail and the chance to have Broderick and Walken's stage turns preserved on film. 

Working Girl (1988) The cynical re-tooling of the '50's era corporate-gal-balancing-love-and-work story, ends up having a decidedly different ending (girl chooses work, which Nichols nicely undercuts with the last shot, much as he snatched True Love from the clutches of The Graduate). Great cast, led by Melanie Griffith (probably her best performance) as a Jersey girl trying to negotiate up the high-rises across the river, with Sigourney Weaver monstrously funny as the boss-of-all-bosses, and, in a surprising bit of casting, Harrison Ford as The Boyfriend, deftly played with charm and great comic timing—he was always capable of it as his "Star Wars" and "Raiders" performances showcased, and was hinted in Witness, but action takes second-place to intelligence here. Also look for Alec Baldwin (two Jack Ryans in one movie!) and another early film appearance by Kevin Spacey as the sleaze-of-all-sleazes.

For all the anthem-like lip-service to female empowerment in the work-place, Nichols negates the triumph (as he did in The Graduate) with a devastating shot of the newly triumphant Griffith enjoying her place in a window office, that is shown to be just one of thousands in the New York maze of high-rises. This is a victory? Or just another trap?

Postcards from the Edge (1990) Carrie Fisher's highly observant novel about a drug-addicted film star out of rehab trying to cope with a forced cohabitation with her aggressive show-biz Mom (who probably inspired the habit in the first place) lead to wild speculation about Fisher's own relationship with Mom Debbie Reynolds,**** but Nichols wisely moves away from that to focus on the absurdity of movie-star life, and how far from reality that really is. Or how far from gut-truthfulness or any grounding that an addict might need to completely kick it.

Streep is very funny in this and again, there's an amazing cast with Shirley McLaine (perfection), Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Annette Bening, Dana Ivey, Mary Wickes (!), Oliver Platt, CCH Pounder, and Rob Reiner.  It's a nice little star-studded trifle about how crazy life in La-La Land can be—as if anyone (even in pre-Lohan-Kardashian days) needed to be reminded of that.

Regarding Henry (1991) Nichols re-teams with Ford to present one of his best performances as a legal monster, Henry Turner, who suffers brain-damage after a shooting (he's shot by John Leguziamo!) and emerges an empathetic human being in a script written by a young J.J. Abrams (as Jeffrey Abrams—he also has a cameo as a delivery boy).

It's all a bit cut-and-dried, when you look at it, all neatly tied up in bows and platitudes—of the nasty, judgmental rich and the sainted, accepting poor—and there's nary a hitch in Henry's recovery (except a lingering, pervasive limp) as he must learn to do everything again—eat, walk, remember and love his family, read. He's given a second chance at life, and everybody from his previous life—except for his wife and daughter, to whom he'd been in the process of losing through an affair and an autocratic nature (based on legal principles)—sees that as a problem and a tragedy necessitating pity (and the occasional catty comment).

On the surface, it's a nice "born again" parable, but a bit troubling in its over-simplification.  But, one can't fault the performances: Ford plays both version of Henry with fine subtlties—his lawyer's not a monster (as in Nicholson's role in Carnal Knowledge and...Nichols' next film), just insensitive and a manipulater; and he brings an essential element to post-trauma Henry that is recognizable and evokes audience empathy—fear. Annette Bening plays his long-suffering wife without a complaint (and that may be a problem).  

An interesting variation of the man versus women concept of the Nichols filmography.

Wolf (1994) Nichols does horror (in this case, a werewolf story) and turns it into an allegory for corporate back-slashing. Old pal Nicholson is back, a bit older, but not much wiser, as a middle-aged editor at a publisher's (I'm assuming it's LA, as he works in The Bradbury Building) who goes through an interesting version of a mid-life crisis. He hits a wolf with his car and life begins to get a little hairy. He's pushed out of his job by a wily, younger co-worker (James Spader), and his appetite begins to increase, as does his eyesight, visual acuity So does his predatory instinct, as his lycanthropy becomes more useful than any library of self-help books on business stratagems.

It's almost like Nichols had second thoughts about Regarding Henry with its emasculated male becoming more of a human being, and made a rejoinder about a relative milquetoast finding success, joy and happiness as a beast.  

It's also odd to see Nicholson doing material such as this with more showiness than depth (however, he was being a bit less choosy after his success in Batman) and Michelle Pfeiffer's damsel-in-distress seems unnecessary to the proceedings, but that seems to be what was required in this Jim Harrison/Wesley Strick penned screenplay, that has potential there sub-textually, but never makes a full transformation into a great screenplay.

The Birdcage (1996) A multi-hyphenate story (starting as the play, then film, then Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles) this was an original adaptation by Nichols' original comedy partner Elaine May, with songs by Stephen Sondheim, and starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple trying to pass as straight for the benefit of Williams' character's son in order to impress the conservative parents (Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest) of his fiancee (Calista Flockhart). Hilarity ensues. And, actually, it does.  How could it not when you throw Williams and Lane together, and then add the sly acting styles of Hackman and Wiest into the mix for spice. In some ways, the coarser, more frenetic Birdcage tops the original French film (even if it does maintain the "swishy" stereotypes—but they're lovable, earnest swishy stereotypes) and there's more elbowing of straights (up-tight or not) to off-set the drag act—speaking of which, Gene Hackman makes one ugly woman—and there's genuine wholesomeness in the lesson: "Just be yourself...but try to be entertaining while doing it."

Primary Colors (1998) Probably never screened at the Clinton White House. Elaine May adapted the novel by "Anonymous" (actually Time magazine's Joe Klein) about a charismatic Southern governor (John Travolta) making a quixotic bid for the White House. Trouble is he's been tilting at more than windmills, and although he talks a good talk, his character is one of an opportunist. If anybody didn't get the point, Travolta does such straight-up imitation of Bill Clinton that if one wanted a general parable about the corruptibility of politics, it gets lost in the Clintonian specificity. Emma Thompson, it should be noted, is less on point as Governor Jack Stanton's ambitious wife, as is Billy Bob Thornton's off-the-rails campaign manager. Central to the story is Adrian Lister's campaign aide, as callow and naive as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, but who has it in his DNA to be a part of something more than himself, but is only willing to hitch his wagon to it, rather than be the catalyst himself. Kathy Bates has a plumb role as Stanton's former Chief of Staff, and one of the best acting turns is by Larry Hagman as a former Florida governor who temporarily puts his hat in the ring. Still, it's a smart film with only Travolta's slavish Clinton-channeling that mars it.
"Nighthawks" but done in a Krispy-Kreme for Primary Colors.

What Planet Are You From? (2000) This Garry Shandling penned (with Michael Leeson) Sci-fi/rom-com/satire-metaphor/hyper-hyphenate is a big let-down, as it's one big "dick" joke.  A planet, populated by ED-suffering males, bent on conquering Earth "from within," send one of their own planet-side with the purpose of impregnating women. And, as there are no women on his planet, he is coached how to seduce (best point: "Compliment their shoes") until such a point that his surgically-implanted substitute... "appendage" starts to vibrate and make an obnoxious whirring noise...which happens with the mere hint of a polite smile.

Hilarity ensues...if you're 12 years old. Thematically, it's a comic version of Nichols' movies about predatory males, but one wonders what all the good people working on this film—Annette Benning, John Goodman, Greg Kinnear, Linda Fiorentino, Ben Kingsley—are doing here.

Wit (2001) "You have cancer" says her doctor (Christopher Lloyd) to the camera. "Go on?" says Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) who agrees to the most radical of chemotherapy treatments and reflects on it and life on this filmed version of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning play (adapted, minimally, by Thompson and Nichols).  

The tables had turned by this time and cable companies (like HBO) were branching out into more daring and expensive projects to the point where their choice of material was far braver than those of the mainstream movie theater output. It's doubtful that Wit would have been green-lit by any Hollywood studio, or that audiences would flock to a 90 minute film about cancer, no matter how high the pedigree, how great the acting, how sharp the script.

Check, check, and check. With a smaller canvas, Nichols is more focused, like in the Carnal Knowledge days, and to see the uber-intelligent, funny and precise Bearing reduced to helpless childhood behavior is harrowing and heart-breaking. Thompson never does anything easy (although she makes it look easy and natural) and one can admire how she plays it, even as one is gripping their arm-chairs over it. Great work all around.

Angels in America (2003) It's been called one of the best transitions from play to filmed presentation, with a cast of some of the best actors in America playing multiple parts. Al Pacino plays Roy Cohn, Meryl Streep plays the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman named Hannah and a rabbi, Emma Thompson the titular angel, Jeffrey Wright has three roles, with Mary-Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, Patrick Wilson, and Ben Shenkman rounding out the cast. Adapted by its playwright Tony Kushner, this version dropped the subtitle ("A Gay Fantasia on National Themes") despite it being a perfect summation for the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play of life in the plague-years of AIDS in the 1980's.

Now, there are issues, but not due to Nichols' direction of such or John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen's editing scheme, as much as the play itself and the very nature of Kushner's work, more designed for the seamless illusions of stage-craft, where transitions are signaled by the dimming of lights and re-directing an audiences's focus—it's a seamless transition with the darkened section being given an unspoken "to be continued." For film, the transition is made with a cut or a fade with no guarantee of revisiting that time or place or characters (and with Angels in America, that spans time and space and psyches) and as actors are playing multiple characters (as with the stage play), it creates a comprehension lag where information is lost, especially at the beginning of scenes. Angels in America bears repeat viewing, for all sorts of reasons.

And Kushner's play is all over the map, flying between reality and fantasy, clarity and delirium, past and present, and there are times when his concepts and aims are so esoteric, you wonder why he's gone to what seems to be a sidebar. Along the way, Kushner and his characters touch on McCarthy, Reagan, fashion, Gorbachev, God, heavenly bureaucracy, and almost every 80's topic except for the clumsiness of birkenstocks and Murphy Brown's pregnancy. But, it all comes together in a speech to the audience that challenges, reassures, and comforts.

Closer (2004) This one feels like Carnal Knowledge for the 21st Century. Four very beautiful people in London—Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen (they're all gorgeous, what could go wrong?)—episodically circle and pace each other in romantic entanglements, even if they don't really connect in the way they want or expect (The most hilarious combination: Law and Owen as sex-chat partners when one poses online as Roberts for a meet-up).  

Dan (Law) is a wanna-be writer, Alice (Portman) is an actress/stripper who meet (quite literally) by accident and become lovers. After a year, Dan is an author (writing a novel about Alice's past) and meets Anna (Roberts) who's shooting his book jacket-sleeve photo. Intrigued, he pursues Anna, but is frustrated, especially when Alice overhears their flirting. Months later, Dan is on a cyber-sex chat site and has a conversation with Larry (Owen), a dermatologist, and he uses his knowledge of Anna (much as he purloined Alice for his novel) to attract Larry to a meeting. Larry and Anna actually meet, hook up and marry, frustrating Dan which leads him to pursue an affair with Anna, breaking up her marriage with Larry (really, it's not as dumb as this sounds).

It's a self-propelled fandango of flickering love that can't be sustained over time, as the couples dance in a whirlwind dousing their own candles in usery delight, with good work from all the cast, particularly Owen and Portman, who move beyond roles they're accustomed to—him, a little fragile, she a little tough and jaded—to show how romance, based on image, is unsustainable. A little precious, all in all, but a good film.

Love at First Sight—the pure opening and closing image in Closer

Charlie Wilson's War (2007) I remember when "West Wing" was on the air, a Republican Congressman explained why he loved the show--"Everybody is smart, funny, and semi-effectual, instead of the truth." Sums up Charlie Wilson's War, too, which was also written by Aaron Sorkin

A Texas Congressman named Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), the definition of what Sorkin used to call "an empty suit" on television, presides over a district that doesn't want much, so he's free to wheel and deal, doling out favors and votes to his fellow congressmen, drinking like a fish, "canvassing" all sorts of female constituents, facing questions of ethics violations, and staffing his office with bimbos ("Charlie says you can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em how to grow tits," says his receptionist, cheerily). One day he looks up from his hot-tub of Playmates to see Dan Rather on the news wondering why no one will send the Mujahadin weapons to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. So, with the the help of a schlumpfy CIA Agent with impulse-control problems (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a dragon-lady of a Republican anti-communist lobbyist (Julia Roberts), Wilson wrangles his way through various walk-and-talks securing surface-to-air missiles for the Afghanis. His efforts drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and (in a gross oversimplification of the precariousness of the Soviet State), bring an end to the Evil Empire. 

The same problem that douses The Fortune plagues this one: everybody's trying a bit too hard to wrangle laughs out of the material, even though the situation is tragically based on real events. But, there's more, owing to what issues one can only idly speculate. It's hard to get a bead on a point of view here:  it's not exactly a black comedy (it isn't funny enough for that), it's not satire (Sorkin can't write it, for one thing), and, although it's trying to make a point about war as an exportable commodity that can be snuck through Congress like any other pork-barrel item, it does so to the accompaniment of rousing patriotic music that sounds like it's egging it on. About the only jab that sticks is the awarding of Wilson an award for his clandestine efforts in a nearly abandoned hangar because the operation was so secret. Interesting idea for a movie, but irritatingly confused in its stance. Amy Adams also appears, and Emily Blunt has a small role.

Some other images from the films of Mike Nichols:

* My favorite Nichols story from his directing career involves a tussle he had with Walter Matthau at the time Nichols was overseeing rehearsals of the original Broadway production of "The Odd Couple" (co-starring Art Carney). Nichols, sitting in the theater, was being tiraded by Matthau—whether over the interpretation of Oscar Madison, or how much control he had over the character, that's lost to History—and the actor yelled "You're emasculating me!  Give me back my balls!"  To which, Nichols yelled to the wings: "Props....!"

** Catch-22 is one of only a handful of feature films that does not feature any kind of score (although "Also Sprach Zarathustra" is played under one scene for comic effect).

*** Legally, a good thing—as the film was seized by police at an Albany, Georgia movie theater and the theater owner convicted of "distributing obscene material."  The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, no doubt the result of an aggressive police force, prosecution and judge, who...if, maybe, they'd actually watched the film...should have realized they were pursuing a fool's crusade.

**** Fisher is a far better and funnier writer to merely depend on real life for her ideas. The funniest aspect of this is that Debbie Reynolds tried out for the role supposedly based on her and Nichols told her she wasn't right for the part!

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