Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols, 2007) opened in theatres here last week, and Juno is coming I believe next week or the week after. I watched both over the weekend, the first in the theatre, the last on a bootleg DVD of only average quality (there are bittorrents out there of higher quality).
I went to see Charlie Wilson's War basically because there was not much else out there in terms of mainstream releases. I was pleasantly surprised and generally entertained by the performances and the story. As filmmaking there is not much to recommend here. Director Mike Nichols (who debuted with The Graduate over 40 years ago) conforms to the "intensified continuity" style of contemporary Hollywood with few exceptions (some frontal long take compositions with two characters walking towards the camera). But Nichols, a renowned theatre director, has always been great with actors, and the story here is worth telling. It deals with how a Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson helps covertly fund and supply the Afghanistan rebels in their war with the Soviets. If this film had been made in 1991, it would have been insufferable propaganda (and unlikely would have attracted Nichols and his actors in the first place). But knowing how the story turns out after the triumph puts a different spin on the whole film and how it progresses. The film certainly could have been tougher and made more explicit the links to Bin Laden, but overall a worthwhile and entertaining film.
Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) was one of most critically acclaimed films of last year, but watching the first 10-15 minutes I wondered why. It seemed almost like a parody of indie film, especially the use of music and the opening title sequence. I feared the film would be imitation Wes Anderson without the sense of formal rigour that make his films as distinctive and moving as they are. However, the film does overcome this weak opening and the script and acting are both so good that you can understand the critical applause. Having seen Reitman's previous Thank You for Smoking, I'm skeptical about him as as auteur. Overall, the directing of both films is their least distinctive feature. And while I liked both films, I think they're also overrated.
Watching the film, I was reminded of a conference paper I heard last year on the connection between independent cinema and indie music in the US. I've always thought that my affection for certain directors, such as Scorsese and Wes Anderson in particular, rested on me sharing their taste in music. However, it's not quite as simple as that. Scorsese and Anderson create memorable images to fuse with the music; in Juno, we simply get the music. There is one scene, however, set to Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes", that is effective as Anderson's use of The Rolling Stones' "She Smiled Sweetly" in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Juno establishes an indie sensibility to distinguish the "hip" from the "normal", but in the end does not claim that this is the basis for moral judgment. The wife of the adoptive couple, square as she is, is given more weight at the conclusion than the husband, cool as he is. We can view this as progressive, perhaps, but it is also a sign of the film's ideological neutrality and attempt at reconciling these values. The character of Juno is at the heart of this project, and the film is as popular as it is, I believe, because Ellen Page's performance is both authentic and, ultimately, in the service of traditional morality. Comparing this film and its lead character to Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World from 2001 shows how much more audience friendly this version of indie hipness is. With this film and last year's Little Miss Sunshine, we could be witnessing a major shift in what independent film is or even what the term means.