Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin (based on the book by George Crile)
Stars: Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson), Amy Adams (Bonnie Bach), Julia Roberts (Joanne Herring), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gust Avrakotos), Brian Markinson (Paul Brown), Jud Tylor (Crystal Lee), Hilary Angelo (Kelly), Cyia Batten (Stacey), Daniel Eric Gold (Donnelly), Emily Blunt (Jane Liddle), Peter Gerety (Larry Liddle)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2007
Country: U.S.
Charlie Wilson's War
Charlie Wilson's WarIn Charlie Wilson's War, Tom Hanks effects a Southern drawl and an air of debauched charm to play the East Texas Congressman who, in the 1980s, became the unlikely architect of a covert war against the invading Soviet army in Afghanistan. This is certainly a fascinating and bizarre story, one of those political parables that has largely flown under the radar but has much to tell us about how things really work in the fabled halls of power. The problem with the film, though, is that director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin can't seem to decide if this is truly meaningful or just can-ya-believe-it? funny.

When we first meet Charlie Wilson, he is being given an award for his important role in helping to end the Cold War, a moment of teary-eyed respectfulness that is immediately contrasted with a quick cut to a decade earlier when Charlie was lounging in a Las Vegas hot tub with several strippers and a whole lot of booze and cocaine. Charlie is presented as a rather unremarkable congressman with a simultaneous addiction to whiskey and women, someone who is clearly using the position for his own comfortable entitlement. His office is run by a bevy of curvaceous beauties known as “Charlie's Angels” and his first order of the day is a glass of the hard stuff.

One of his lovers happens to be Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a high-society Houstonite and the sixth richest woman in Texas. Joanne has taken an interest in Afghanistan, which in the early 1980s most politicians, never mind ordinary Americans, couldn't find on a map. The country had been invaded by the Soviet army, and the fear of the domino effect (one country falling to communism leading to another and another and another) had rabid anti-communists like Joanne in a frenzy. She convinces Charlie to visit neighboring Pakistan, and once Charlie sees the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees flooding into the country to escape the Soviet-inflicted violence, he becomes a champion of the cause and uses his position to covertly funnel millions of dollars to the Afghan mujahideen. His primary ally in this endeavor is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an aging and increasingly bitter CIA covert operative who has been sidelined by petty bureaucrats. Like Joanne he is a fervid anti-communist, and like Charlie he knows how to work the system to get results.

Thus, we have a bizarre political love triangle that against all odds worked for years as the United States government secretly supplied the Afghan rebels with weapons to fight the mighty Soviet army. Charlie Wilson's War gives a decent, if highly condensed accounting of how this might happen, making it clear that it was a heady mixture of Gust's covert know-how, Charlie's smoother-operating political backhanding, and Joanne's connections to powerful international figures that made it all work. It's all too unbelievable not to be believed, and if the film had established a more consistent tone, it might have worked as a truly awe-inspiring instance of stranger-than-fiction. Nichols, however, wants to have his foot in both the darkly satirical and the mushy-sentimental, which isn't too surprising since he's produced films that exemplify both trends. This isn't the Nichols of Catch-22 (1971) or the Nichols of Regarding Henry (1991), but rather some strange bastard child of the two extremes.

At a short 93 minutes, it feels as though Charlie Wilson's War was hacked up in the editing room, leaving the bare bones of the structure but little of the really juicy meat. This could account for why the tonal transitions are so abrupt, leaving little room for genuine reflection. It also doesn't help that the film is studiously miscast. With the exception of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose gruff comic timing remains practically magisterial, it is clear that the leads were cast solely for marquee value, rather than appropriateness to the role. Hanks certainly makes Charlie Wilson work as a character, but his good ol' boy performance feels strained at times. Julia Robert doesn't have much screen time, but when she does she aims for the stars with a Scarlet O'Hara drag routine that anyone from Texas will recognize as a generic Southern impersonation not fit for Houston high society.

If the film sticks with you at all, it's because Nichols and Sorkin make sure that the subtext--that is, what the film has to say about our situation right now--has a lasting bite. They leave it largely unspoken (which is a blessing because everything else in the film is spelled out in talky dialogue), but it's clear that the story's sick twist is that Charlie's war is still going on, except it's Americans in the crosshairs instead of Soviets. We cheered the collapse of a communist superpower and then blindly stepped right into its place. There's a brief bit at the end in which the politicians, after years of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars for the war machine refuse Charlie's request to spend a measly million on rebuilding schools. Thus, the United States had a chance to be a real hero, but decided instead to step aside and allow the rise of the Taliban, a haunting mistake that assures us that this political tall tale is all too relevant.

Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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