This film runs your heart aground, pulverizes it, and asks insistently, "Why didn't you like this movie?" After suffering through The Notebook, another tearjerker with just enough little annoyances for me to repel myself, PS I Love You operates on the same maudlin, sentimental territory.
Now, Hilary Swank tries mightily to depict an everywoman here, but her serious approach to acting that has won her accolades elsewhere dooms her here. She acts in a realistic imagined space while the film inhabits a feminine dreamscape, full of three hot, sexy, caring men -- all seemingly created in order to make the film's audience, a small group of girlfriends, cry, "Why aren't there any men like that out there?!?"
Her cohort Gerard Butler accepts his role more acceptingly, in the tradition of Dermot Mulroney in The Wedding Date. I imagine these actors begrudgingly sitting down to read the chick-lit sources for movies in this genre. They see the opportunity and make the most of it, understanding that the women of this film's audience do not want a man; they want an idealized hunk conveniently overcome by the purest of emotional motives.
Structurally, the movie resembles Return to Me, with the similar plot device of a pure-of-heart protagonist who has his lifelong love tragically taken from him/her by cancer, forcing the grieving process and a return to idealized monogamous, heterosexual love.
What could the move have done better? Well, the whole genre of this kind of movie -- the chick-lit comedy and/or tearjerker -- strikes me as emotionally exploitative. Everything Aristotle says about good drama in The Poetics gets broken.
PS I Love You is supposed to be serious, but is not; does not attempt challenging language or dialogue; relies on narrative over action; and finally does not offer me a catharsis I can believe in.
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.
If you had a tear in your eye for almost this whole movie, it got to you; if you did not tear up, you could not stand this film. That is all.
The screenplay leads the action of Charlie Wilson's War, written by West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip writer/producer Aaron Sorkin, famous for his kinetic, substance-fueled dialogue. For lovers of quick wit, imperfect heroes and heroines, and politics, this is your film, with strong acting from Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts (except for her unreliable accent).
Like West Wing, Charlie Wilson's War creates a fictional America where politicians have pure motives involving Good versus Evil. East Texas US Representative Charlie Wilson witnesses the suffering of Afghani families under Russian military might and decides to help the locals "shoot the choppers down." Ironically, the scenes depicting Russian Evil bear a striking resemblance to the "Death From Above" combat scene in Apocalypse Now.
Wilson fights a reluctant political establishment with the help of his Texas consort-aristocrat Joanne Herring (Roberts). The one structural problem of the film is that the plight and fight of the Afghanis never becomes real, because there are no Afghani characters. In another irony, the refugee camps in the film no doubt resemble the emigrations of Iraqis after the US invasion. Surprisingly, Sorkin does not pick a bone with any of this stuff; instead he offers an optimistic Cold War America, where things were Simple and we knew who was Good and who was Evil.
I don't know why, but Tom Hanks seems to never pick scripts that I can fully glom onto. Each film -- Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, The Green Mile, and Apollo 13, among many others (Hanks always has his finger on the pulse of Hollywood) maintains at least a tincture of sentimentality. "There is amorality and unrecompensed suffering in the world!" I want to say.
But, Charlie Wilson's War is a political drama/comedy that documents the covert history of US involvement in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, which is an important service, and film is fun and shows the quirkiness inherent in the national figures of American politics. Importantly, the film finishes with Wilson fighting for a politically moderate postwar Afghanistan, and we know what actually happened -- Al-Qaida and the Taliban. "We fucked up the endgame," Sorkin finishes with a quote from the real-life Charlie Wilson.
I enjoyed watching both of these films, but could describe neither as unflinching, anti-sentimental, or inhabiting an emotional space I felt comfortable in. These are Hollywood movies made for Americans; both films' attempts at universality come in limited terms: in PS I Love You, the premise is that people have pure emotional motives that will get them through the trying times of life; in Charlie Wilson's War, the premise is that the Real American similarly has pure motives, which will get us through trying political times.
Both movies say, "Things will get better." But we know that things will always be The Same -- there is no pure motive, and tragedy is truer to life than comedy.