Koch on Film


“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (+)

This is a masterpiece by Tim Burton. I never saw any of his previous films, because I always imagined them to be cartoons in one form or another which I would not enjoy watching. How foolish and gauche of me. Burton is an extraordinary artist and director, and this film is terrific. Equally superb is the performance of Johnny Depp whose films I never miss. I don’t like his politics, but I sure do admire his talents as an actor. His costar is Helena Bonham Carter as the meat pie maker, Mrs. Lovett, a role made famous by Angela Lansbury on Broadway in 1979.

For those not familiar with the story, Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is a London barber. He is married to Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), and they have a daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener). Todd is wrongfully accused of a crime and banished to Australia by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who is attracted to Todd’s wife Lucy. Todd, who escapes from prison and returns to London 15 years later with a sailor, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), searches for his wife and child. He seeks revenge by slashing the throats of customers and waits for Judge Turpin to come in for a shave. Hope, in love with Johanna, later finds her in an insane asylum, having been placed there by the judge. Enough said.

I saw “Sweeny Todd” on Broadway in 1979 starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the role of Mrs. Lovett, and it was breathtaking. She made the story her story. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim. It was a glorious folk opera comparable to the “Beggar’s Opera” by Bertolt Brecht which I had seen starring Lotte Lenya when it opened on Christopher Street in the Village. I saw another production of the “Beggar’s Opera” a few years later and walked out because the voices, so important in a musical and an opera, were terrible. In the film “Sweeney Todd,” all of the actors, including Depp who is not known for his singing voice and has never sung in a movie as far as I know, perform their numbers superbly and their acting is excellent, especially Depp’s whose facial movements conveying emotions are brilliant.

Do be warned. This is a gory movie and not for the fainthearted. But if you admire genius, hurry to the theater to see this picture.

Oh, I just remembered. The role of Judge Turpin’s assistant, Beadle Bamford is played by Timothy Spall. It is a cameo role that nearly steals the movie. Spall plays it as though he were doing a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in acting style. It alone is worth the price of admission.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” (+)

This terrific movie about Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman from Texas with whom I served in Congress, is authentic in tone, wit and wisdom. Tom Hanks, who portrays Wilson, truly captures his persona and physical mannerisms. The film doesn’t mention it, but Charlie had a very painful back condition which caused him to move as if walking on eggs. Hanks got it just right.

The story focuses on the effort to drive the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan. The moving force in Charlie’s social life in the 1980s was a Houston socialite, Joanna Herring (Julia Roberts), who focused his attention on Afghanistan. I left Congress in 1977 when I was elected mayor and didn’t know that Charlie was responsible for getting the U.S. to provide funds to the Afghan mujahedeen who were using weapons supplied by the U.S. and available as far back as World War I. The script states that Charlie, who increased the U.S. support of the mujahedeen from five million to one billion, effectively won the war that drove the USSR out of Afghanistan. I have no doubt that he was capable of doing it. The new weapons supplied and purchased by U.S. dollars authorized by Congress at the request of Charlie Wilson on the Foreign Operations Committee made it possible for the mujahedeen with the U.S. Stinger to shoot down dozens of Soviet helicopters and fixed wing planes, and other updated weaponry destroyed the Soviet tanks.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the C.I.A. operative, Gust Avrakotos. I don’t know the operative so I can’t pass judgment on how accurately he is portrayed, but the character presented is an interesting one and the acting is excellent.

Two incidents that I recall involving Charlie Wilson when he and I served in the Congress together:

We were on a junket in Israel where he was inspecting the Israeli Navy. He became involved with a female Israeli Naval officer assigned to our party. The Israeli Navy did not approve and reassigned her. Charlie was beside himself with anger. I went to a government official and said, “You are dealing with Israel’s most important non-Jewish friend in the Congress. If you make him angry, that could change. I urge you to return that naval officer to our party.” And they did.

Many Senators and Congress members run to the chamber at the last minute to vote on an issue. If they haven’t served on the committee sponsoring the bill or listened to the debates on the issue, they often look to another member who is on the floor of the chambers whose judgment they trust on how to vote. On one occasion when I arrived at the last moment, I looked to Charlie who gave me the thumbs up indicating that I should vote “yes” which I did. Fortunately, other friends of mine noticed my vote on the board and said to me, “Wrong vote. Change it.” I learned that I had voted to give billions of dollars in subsidies to oil companies. I quickly changed my vote to “no,” and said to Charlie, “How could you do this to me?” He laughed and said, “Ed, you can trust me on anything but oil.”

Everyone loved Charlie, warts and all. He invited me to speak at a fundraiser for him in Texas which I was happy to do. At his request, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who rarely traveled to do speaking gigs, spoke at a dinner in my honor in Manhattan.

This movie will make you feel good. Go see it.

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