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CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR
Eclectic album with some excellent highlights
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
* * * 1/2
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Universal Pictures; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall
A film about the CIA's covert action against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s (led politically by Congressman Charlie Wilson, hence the title), Charlie Wilson's War is the latest film from director Mike Nichols, who has a mixed record, but given this time the screenwriter is the great Aaron Sorkin, and the cast isn't exactly full of idiots (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman) it looks like a film worth seeing. Nichols works for the first time with composer James Newton Howard, who seems to be extremely busy at the moment (no doubt mostly down to coincidental release scheduling, but this is one of four films he has being released in the US during December 2007).
His own recent past has been distinctly hit-and-miss, with high-points like Lady in the Water being surrounded by more than a few duds; Charlie Wilson's War, fortunately, falls into the first category. It opens with a beautifully noble theme in "Charlie Wilson", which is both moving and memorable. The score is rather eclectic - and that warm opening is followed by gentle bluegrass in "Telex Machine" which is very nice, but seems to come from a different film score altogether! This is the norm in this brief album though - that opening theme is repeated several times, but there are a few tracks which stand completely alone and feel unrelated to the rest. In "Refugee Camp", Howard is suddenly back in Blood Diamond territory; obviously the feeling is more Afghan than African, but the technique used by the composer to conjure up images of mayhem and suffering is the same, with vocals, percussion and ethnic winds working effectively.
"The Belly Dancer" is another piece which comes from nowhere. Breathy, sultry vocals accompany the ethnic music. Then comes the score's centrepiece, the lengthy "Turning the Tide", which again is highly unusual. At first it seems to be reprising the material in "Refugee Camp", but after three minutes or so Howard interlaces that music with renaissance-style choral music; it's bizarre, but it works. It's followed by the brief "Where's It At, Charlie?" which features a lovely variation on the main theme; "Balcony", which introduces a new piece for solo piano which is simply beautiful; and finally "Honoured Colleague", a rousing and very satisfying finale. Charlie Wilson's War isn't exactly Howard at his best - and is slightly too bitty to make an album which flows smoothly - but the highlights are too numerous to ignore, and as such it comes recommended.