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Movie Review: Charlie Wilson’s War
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Charlie Wilson's War movie posterCharlie Wilson’s War
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rated R
Release date: Dec. 21, 2007

My constituents know they’re not electing a constipated monk.” — Charlie Wilson

These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. And then we fucked up the endgame.” — Charlie Wilson

Charlie Wilson’s War: Good Times before the Blowback

Charlie Wilson’s War eradicated the sour taste in my mouth left by such dry polemics as Rendition and Lions For Lambs. Watching these films, the filmmakers’ heart is in the right place, but the execution was bland and off putting. I even found the films to be insulting at times. The real-life story of Texas Congressman, Charlie Wilson, and his involvement in the largest CIA covert operation is anything but dry. Thanks to Mike Nichols‘ effortless direction and Aaron Sorkin‘s witty screenplay based on the late George Crile‘s book of the same name, the film never goes off the rails into misguided pandering.

Nichols does this kind of film very well. Primary Colors was a decent adaptation of that favorite inside the beltway bestseller back in the mid-nineties. Sadly, the film could not compete with the real life inside the beltway shenanigans at the time. Charlie Wilson’s War owes more to films like Primary Colors, Wag The Dog, Children Of The Revolution, and this year’s The Hunting Party. It helps that Nichols has a strong comic background with films like The Fortune, Working Girl, Catch-22, and especially The Graduate. Aaron Sorkin has a great ear for politics as pop culture; he understands it very well. The West Wing was a testament to his special talent. His script for The American President displayed that he had a keen sense of humor when it came to politics. His adaptation of Crile’s book is an excellent lesson in how to bring a book to the screen and not lose the core essence — a slim and vibrant history lesson. Nichols and Sorkin understand that politics is really a comic mission despite the seriousness that surrounds it. The film is the flipside to this year’s The Kite Runner. Charlie Wilson’s War is the perfect film for the Wonkette and Huffington Post crowd.

Charlie Wilson’s War is fun. You heard that right, the film is fun. What an odd word to describe a film about the 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Texas Congressman who wants to save the people being destroyed by the Soviets. Charlie Wilson is a larger than life character played by Tom Hanks. This is a Tom Hanks we have not seen in a very long time. This is the older version of Tom Hanks from the television show Bosom Buddies and films like Bachelor Party, Volunteers, and Dragnet — the Tom Hanks before he became a two-time best actor Oscar winner. Really, Tom Hanks plays Wilson as an older version Bachelor Party‘s Rick Gassko and I mean this as a compliment because Charlie Wilson is the ultimate bachelor. He has the ultimate bachelor pad in Washington, DC. Hanks’ Wilson seems to be a politician from another time. He has character, but he has a wild side to him. When we first meet Wilson, he is soaking in a hot tub with a Playboy centerfold and a Hollywood producer in a Las Vegas Hotel surrounded by alcohol and cocaine circa 1980. He is intrigued by the events on the television news. Dan Rather is reporting from Afghanistan and wearing a turban. Who could forget Rather in his Gunga Dan phase? Wilson wants to know what is going on. Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman who represented Texas’ second congressional district, is an unlikely hero. Amidst all the women, drugs, and alcohol (a Scotch seems to be glued to his hand in the film), Soviet aggression becomes the rallying cry for Wilson. He is a shameless womanizer. His office is staffed by beautiful women who were named Charlie’s Angels. Amy Adams plays his assistant, Bonnie Bach. Sadly, Adams has a small role in the film and does not get to do as much as she did in Enchanted and Junebug. Charlie was also a very keen political operator. He knew how to work with politicians to get what he wanted for his district. Still, the Soviet aggression in Afghanistan would become his major concern and cause. What can he do to bring down the Red Army? He is frustrated that the United States is not doing anything to help.

One of the most important scenes in the film deals with Charlie Wilson’s visit to Pakistan. His tour of the region is where his true conversion takes place. Charlie Wilson travels to the refugee camp at Peshawar in the tribal regions of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. It is here we see the true devastation and impact of the Soviet invasion. This part of the film is not played for laughs. His conscience is born. Politics as usual will not be tolerated any longer. It is to Hanks’ credit that he can play the comic and serious sides so well at the flick of switch.

Joanne Herring is a wealthy, conservative Houston Socialite with whom Wilson finds common ground. She adores Jesus and despises godless communism. Herring too has made it her life’s ambition to take up the cause of Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Herring is played by Julia Roberts, a blonde fireball. In many ways, her scenes with Hanks amount to something of a great pairing of Hollywood’s most popular actor and actress. They have great chemistry onscreen. Ever since Julia Roberts met Steven Soderbergh, her range and versatility has improved. She has matured into playing this type of supporting role. In another time, this part would have been played by a Rita Hayworth type. Pakistan’s military President, played by the always wonderful Om Puri, is one of her projects. It is a pleasure to see Roberts and Hanks act off one another. It is not quite Gable and Lombard, but it will have to do for 2007.

Arguably, as good as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are in the film, they are upstaged by Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s hard-living misfit CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos. Like Josh Brolin and Christian Bale, Hoffman is having a terrific year. He has played three very different characters in three very different films this year. Along with Charlie Wilson’s War, the two films, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and The Savages, demonstrate Hoffman’s evolving range. He steals the film from Roberts and Hanks just as Raul Julia stole Tequila Sunrise from Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell whenever he was onscreen. Gust is as disgruntled and frustrated as they come. He is not happy with the United States’ lack of involvement in Afghanistan; he finds a kindred spirit in Charlie Wilson. The two of them hatch a complex plan that involves Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all working together in private. The whole idea of all these nations working together was unheard of and it is amazing that it ever worked. Wilson wants Gust to get the most sophisticated weapons for the Afghan Resistance to use against the Soviet helicopter gunships and other aircraft. In order to get these weapons, Wilson will have to go to the House subcommittee chairman, Doc Long, played by Ned Beatty. How are they going to get him to approve the millions of dollars required for such a risky endeavor? An exotic belly dancer helps seal the deal.

Charlie Wilson’s War is a very good and entertaining film. I do not think it is a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. A 96-minute film cannot completely capture the colorful and larger than life Charlie Wilson. However, I do feel that Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin have taken the right approach to the material — a very tongue-in-cheek approach. There is a very serious message at the end of the film. By aiding the Afghan Resistance, did we plant the seeds for the coming of the Taliban after the Soviet defeat? Did we drop the ball by not aiding the country after the Soviets left? Charlie Wilson claims we messed up the endgame. Of course this kind of hindsight is very convenient in 2007, but one cannot help thinking these thoughts while watching the film. The doubts toward the end are evident. The Soviet Army had been beaten by the Afghan rebels and a power vacuum had been created. We did not help to pick up the pieces. Wilson pleads for money to build schools, but Congress is more concerned with aiding a newly liberated Eastern Europe. Even back then, Charlie Wilson knew the score.

Still, Charlie Wilson’s War shows us a hot time during the closing years of the Cold War. I am thankful for the trip.

Watch the 8-minute clip from Charlie Wilson’s War. The extended clip features Golden Globe nominees Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gust Avrakotos) as they meet for the first time and are interrupted with news that Charlie’s under investigation.

3 Comments »

  1. Good review, it really makes me want to see this film even more now. It looks really interesting and I’m glad that Tom Hanks is giving us some of his old “Bachelor Party” style acting.

    Comment by Empress Eve — December 24, 2007 @ 12:37 am

  2. […] Movie Review: Charlie Wilson’s War […]

    Pingback by Broadover.com — December 24, 2007 @ 3:23 am

  3. This has really got me eager to see this, I was unsure what the movie was about until now. Ty so much for always being there to help me see past the trailer and get into the meaty meat of the movie

    Comment by Lanie — December 25, 2007 @ 11:25 pm

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