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Overall Rating

Awesome: 18.18%
Worth A Look61.82%
Just Average: 1.82%
Pretty Crappy: 14.55%
Sucks: 3.64%

6 reviews, 19 user ratings

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Charlie Wilson's War
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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a. Joe Vs. The Russians"
4 stars

“Charlie Wilson’s War” opens with our hero, Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), is being celebrated at a 1989 CIA ceremony for his largely clandestine efforts to help the people of Afghanistan drive the Russians out of their country in a scene that introduces the feature-length flashback chronicling those efforts that follows. It is the kind of familiar scene that we have many times before and it suggests that the film that we are about to watch is yet another overly earnest history lesson designed to teach viewers a lesson about Doing the Right Thing and, more importantly, giving its participants a shot at winning an award or two. As it turns out, that is the only familiar or expected moment to be had in the film as it quickly takes a left turn to become an often-hilarious political satire that tells a story so bizarre and unlikely that it comes as no surprise to discover that most of it is indeed true–after all, no reputable screenwriter worth their salt would dare to come up with a saga this preposterous and ask audiences to believe it for a moment.

When we are properly introduced to Charlie Wilson, we find that he is a low-profile congressman from East Texas whose primary achievements during his five terms in office have been spending his days (well, most of them) in an office staffed entirely with fabulous-looking babes, spending his nights drinking and carousing with models, actresses and even the occasional daughter of a contributor and making sure that his various peccadillos are kept quiet enough so that he can continue to be reelected. However, Charlie isn’t a complete lout and when he catches Dan Rather reporting from Afghanistan about the desperate continued effort by the local Mujahedin to repel the Soviets that invaded their land in 1979, he begins to pay some attention to their plight. Before long, he is contacted by on-again/off-again lover Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), an ultra-right-wing Texas oil millionairess who is determined to do whatever it takes to stop further Communist expansion in Afghanistan and wants Charlie to use his previously untapped power–he sits on committees that deal directly with the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon and, more importantly, he has done favors for many colleagues over the years without ever demanding anything in return–in order to aid the freedom fighters. Charlie doubts that he can do anything but agrees to go overseas to meet with a personal friend of Joanne’s–okay, the president of Pakistan (Om Puri)–and check out the situation for himself.

While there, he is horrified by the walking wounded that he sees in a refugee camp and outraged by the unwillingness of the local American representative in the region to do anything about the situation (“A sudden influx of weapons and money would draw attention.”) and when he returns to the U.S., he is determined to do whatever he can under the radar to lend assistance. He hooks up with Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a mid-level CIA agent whose outrage at being passed over for promotion because of his refusal to play the game of office politics is outweighed only by his desire to kill as many Communists as possible, and utilizing his political muscle, Joanne’s fervent dedication to the cause and Gust’s experience in covert activities, Charlie is able to surreptitiously increase the CIA’s budget for activities in Afghanistan and jerry-rigs an uneasy alliance between the Pakistani president and Israeli arms dealers to arm and fund the Mujahedin in their efforts throughout the decade. Improbably, their efforts pay off and by the end of the 1980's, the Russians have left the region for good and Charlie is regarded as a hero for more or less single-handedly pulling off such an impossible task, though not without the kind of hiccups that would lead to horrifying repercussions a decade or so down the line.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” was directed by Mike Nichols and as anyone who has followed his career can attest, he is a filmmaker whose quality of work varies wildly from film to film–it is still baffling that the same man responsible for such brilliant works as “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge” and “Closer” and such efficient entertainments as “Postcards from the Edge” and “Primary Colors” could also be the man behind such all-out disasters as “Regarding Henry” and “What Planet Are You From?”–but this is definitely one of his better efforts. The screenplay from Aaron Sorkin is a mass of facts and figures but right from the start, Nichols finds the right tone for the material–a breezy blend of caustic satire and door-slamming farce–and sticks with it throughout in a way that brings life to material that might have otherwise come across like a drab policy paper. (One extended scene, in which Charlie and Gust meet for the first time to discuss the Afghanistan situation at the same time that Charlie is also dealing with being implied in a drug investigation being run by the then-unknown Rudolph Guiliani, is such a little masterpiece of writing, direction and crack comic timing that when it finally comes to its breathless conclusion, you want to applaud it in the way that you might with an especially inspired moment in a stage play.) Another thing that I appreciated is the way that Nichols and Sorkin have refused to slow things down with repeated explanations of what is going on for the slower members of the audience–despite being packed with information from start to finish, the film still manages to clock in at an astonishingly concise 97 minutes with ever creating the sense that something crucial is missing. (Well, there is one thing that is missing but we will get to that momentarily.)

The idea of putting two stars as well-known as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts into a film like this may strike some as nothing more than a cheap way to use their star power to lure viewers into sitting through a story that they might not otherwise hold any interest. In fact, their casting turns out to be a stroke of genius on Nichols’ part–seeing as how Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring are supposed to be somewhat larger-than-life characters, what better way to suggest that than by having two of the biggest movie stars in the world embody them with their obvious on-screen charisma? For Hanks, who has pretty much spent the years since winning his Oscars for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” playing relatively serious and somber-minded characters, this role allows him to once again tap into the rougish charm and spot-on flair for comedy that he demonstrated as far back as “Bosom Buddies” you can almost see his relief at being able to finally play a character who isn’t a paragon of decency and virtue. The same goes for Roberts, whose increasingly infrequent screen appearances have lately been limited to serious-minded dramas (“Closer” and “Mona Lisa Smiles”), kiddie films (“The Ant Bully” and “Charlotte’s Web”) and playing the straight woman in the “Ocean’s Eleven” films–here, she gets to cut loose with an agreeably silly and sexy turn that is reminiscent of her underrated supporting work in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (which, come to think of it, also had her involved in sneaky goings-on involving foreign lands). As the outrageous CIA operative, Philip Seymour Hoffman steals every single scene that he is in and his performance, on top of those in the current releases “The Savages” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” confirms that he is one of the most versatile actors at work today. In addition to the three leads, there are nice supporting performances from the likes of Ned Beatty as a veteran politico whose support Charlie desperately needs for his plans to succeed, Amy Adams as the one aide in Charlie’s office that seems to have been hired for her brains as well as her beauty and Emily Blunt as a bit of fun whose brief turn here is so memorable that it automatically makes up for her appearance in that “Jane Austen Book Club” crap.

Despite all of that, I cannot quite give “Charlie Wilson’s War” the unqualified rave that it would otherwise seem to deserve and that is because of my problems with its ending, or rather its essential lack of one. You see, the dark punchline to this entire saga is that once the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan, the local tribes resumed their years of infighting, eventually metastasized into the Taliban and turned their anger against American in ways that violently culminated on 9/11. That seems to be the entire point of where the story is heading and yet, as the film comes to its feel-good conclusion, the word “Taliban” is never mentioned once nor is there any reference connecting the events we have just seen to their brutal blowback–instead, we get a scene in which Charlie tries to convince his now-uninterested colleagues to send money to the region for schools, a bit in which Gust preternaturally suggests that bad tidings may be coming and a end title card that obliquely quotes the real-life Charlie Wilson as saying that “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame.” I don’t know whether the original screenplay also avoided tackling this seemingly unavoidable development head-on or if it was decided that such an addition didn’t fit in with the otherwise uplifting ending but its utter absence is jarring enough to cause an otherwise great film to get knocked down a peg to merely being a very good one. Ironically, it turns out that the final quote mentioned above describes this movie as a whole as well as the story that it tells.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15746&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/21/07 00:00:00
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User Comments

12/06/14 Richard Brandt Moral: Those who flunk history are doomed to repeat it. 4 stars
5/31/10 User Name One of the best of '08. 4 stars
2/27/10 Phil M. Aficiando Outstanding history, entertainment, humor, characters, and acting 5 stars
4/15/09 Potential Interesting, well made, well acted, reap what you sow 4 stars
3/30/09 MP Bartley Entertaining, if superficial. Hoffman is wonderful. 4 stars
11/22/08 CTT Nicely done, but what's the rush? 4 stars
9/04/08 Rachel Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman deliver the goods as usual. 5 stars
8/27/08 Shaun Wallner Interesting storyline. 4 stars
7/02/08 R.W. Welch Playboy congressman changes history. Almost surreal but pretty much true. 4 stars
6/15/08 Sam just ok .. hardly thought provoking .. documenting the involvement of CW in that war.. 2 stars
5/06/08 Random Where's the review for Woodrow Wilson's War? Now THAT was a war!!! 4 stars
5/04/08 Judy Sanders Perfect & Satisfying 5 stars
4/05/08 Jessica Bielzebub What keeps two heat-seeking missiles, fired side-by-side, from seeking each other? 3 stars
3/16/08 Natasha McVandervere Oh, how nice to know that Julia Roberts fucked Tom Hanks to help create the taliban! 2 stars
1/29/08 opossum acres a good film 4 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic For a satire to bite someone has to draw blood 1 stars
12/23/07 ceredo Go see tihis !! 5 stars
12/21/07 D More revisionist leftism from irrelevant hollywood 1 stars
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  21-Dec-2007 (R)
  DVD: 22-Apr-2008



Directed by
  Mike Nichols

Written by
  Aaron Sorkin

  Tom Hanks
  Julia Roberts
  Phillip Seymour Hoffman
  Amy Adams
  Om Puri
  Jud Tylor

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