Charlie Wilson's War

December, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Mike Nichols

Starring:Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty, and Om Puri


While few Americans today are unfamiliar with far-off Afghanistan and its toxic brew of tribal & religious fanaticism, it wasn’t always so; that critically-positioned neighbor of Pakistan and Iran seemed impossibly remote to the citizens of the U.S. nearly years 30 ago when Russia occupied its southern neighbor at the height of the Cold War. In response, The C.I.A. partnered with The Honorable Charles Wilson, a feckless Texas congressman to assist Afghan guerillas in battling the invaders and ultimately forcing their ignominious withdrawal. Wilson’s unlikely collaboration with CIA covert operations specialists forms the storyline of this brisk and thoroughly entertaining piece of fact-based daring-do adapted from a book of the same name by former 60 Minutes producer George Crile. 

Adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin, (creator of The West Wing television series) and A-list director Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson comes to the screen with a pair of Hollywood’s most beloved and recognizable faces; Tom Hanks as Wilson & Julia Roberts as Joanne Herring, a Texas heiress and long-time Wilson supporter determined to help President Zia of Pakistan rid his country of the refugees created by the invasion next door. She hounded Wilson into visiting the region and then into the improbable task of securing the funding necessary to equip the mujahadeen. 

Working nimbly from Sorkin’s politically savvy script, Nichols moves deftly from Texas to Washington to Afghanistan and back again, taking plenty of time to explore how Congressional reciprocities in that legislative body could place a small-time politico at the critical juncture of those committees with the jurisdiction to finance America’s clandestine funding of military supplies. Armed with Wilson’s power of the purse, the CIA then managed a complex weapons delivery system in conjunction with an extraordinary collection of unlikely allies including Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Never has the adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” been so aptly demonstrated.

The considerable star power of Hanks & Roberts gets a bracing, (and much needed) dose of hard-nosed real-politick from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Gust Avrakotos, the scabrous and highly profane CIA spy whose acerbic personality provides hilarious counterpoint to Hank’s carefully polished aw-shucks style and Ms. Robert’s moneyed, right-wing fundamentalism. A more incongruous trio would be hard to imagine and their ultimate success makes this fast-paced bit of cinematic swashbuckling hard to resist.

Because he’s regarded as this movie-going generation’s reincarnation of Jimmy Stewart, it’s easy to forget that Hank’s earliest roles in television and film contained ample amounts of Huck Finn naughtiness; (Splash & The Bachelor Party, not to mention 3 years of Some Like It Hot cross-dressing in the television series Bosom Buddies). He eases back into that type of pleasantly dubious amorality quite comfortably here, making this his best performance in years. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Ms. Roberts; her oft-married (and more frequently bedded) Lone Star socialite lacks the bracing vulgarity necessary to adequately offset the appealingly mischievous Hanks and the wickedly irreverent Hoffman. Twenty years on, she’s still playing Pretty Woman and it’s as out of place here as a cloistered nun would be at a frat party. 

As for Hoffman, what remains to be said? He hit a trifecta this year, adding stand-out performances in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Savages to this role. The only open question now lies in determining just what parts will qualify for which Oscar categories…with an Academy statuette, two Tony nominations and another 40 lesser-known wins already on his resume prior to his 40th birthday, it’s not hard to understand why New York Magazine recently identified him as 5th most important reason to love that oft-maligned city.

The production features are just what you’d expect in a movie with this type of star power; there’s an ample supply of gritty combat footage from the era in question and handsome sets that make Washington apartments, Texas mansions and Congressional office space look remarkably like the real thing. But perhaps because of its focus on pungent political repartee, Charlie Wilson’s burdened with a rather static visual look. It’s not that the movie doesn’t move seamlessly from one location to another, it’s that once in place, successive scenes don’t have the fluidity of this year’s best films. 

Nichols & Company haven’t delivered an especially relevant movie, nor one that tries for the gravitas of recent films like Rendition, Lions For Lambs & Redacted. Yet this breezy examination of geo-politics in the waning days of the Cold War isn’t allowed to end without reference to the maelstrom into which Afghanistan & its neighbors have subsequently descended; Nichols accomplishes this in a cautionary fable Hoffman’s CIA agent delivers to Hank’s high-flying congressman at the celebratory cocktail party Wilson throws when the Russians finally throw in the towel. That bit is followed by a blunt assessment of ‘the end game” delivered by Wilson himself just before the credits begin to roll. By then, the audience has been transported from the heady optimism of the early 1980’s to the grim realities of the present…and thanks to the deft abilities of those connected with this production, it turns out to be quite a trip.

The verdict? Slick and satisfying escapism enriched by the historical veracity of its subject matter.   

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