Charlie Wilson's War

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/05/08 12:26:03

"Political debate by way of breezy charm."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Talk about pedigree: “Charlie Wilson’s War” is directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, and stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Such a line-up is bound to impress - but it also runs the risk of inflating expectations.

Relax. The expectations are met, at least to a point. “Charlie Wilson’s War” is not a great film, but it is a very, very good one, smart and funny and sad and wonderful in all the right places, except one. If not for a third act that trips over itself trying to emphasize a point that was better when it was between the lines, this would be a flawless piece.

Adapted from the book by George Crile, “Charlie Wilson’s War” tells the true story of the titular Congressman from a small district in Texas, a place where, as Wilson puts it, nobody wants anything. As such, Wilson, his time not spent trying to push for local pet projects, is free to schmooze the House, to vote yes on just about anything if it wins him good favor, to party with strippers and drink copious amounts of whiskey. His office is staffed entirely with young, buxom lovelies he affectionately calls “Jail Bait.” His only accomplishment in office, the joke goes, has been getting re-elected.

Then comes 1980, and Afghanistan. Wilson, played with great charm by Hanks, takes notice of the Russian invasion and wonders why so little money and even less attention is being spent by the U.S. to help. His casual agreement to support this pet project grows into a full-on crusade once he visits the country. He witnesses the horrors of war firsthand, meeting children whose limbs were blown off by landmines disguised as toys; more shocking is the discovery of how cavalierly the U.S. embassy is treating the situation, refusing to get involved merely because it would draw too much attention.

Wilson works Capital Hill as well as the Middle East, brokering agreements between nations (most difficult: Israel and Pakistan) and finagling matching funds from the Saudis. When the film opens and Wilson is first clued in to the matter, covert operations funding in Afghanistan was a slim five million dollars; by 1989 and the time of the Soviet defeat, the operations had a cool billion.

The Congressman is assisted in his mission with his own colorful supporting cast. Big-haired, big-mouthed, right-wing Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts) has the money and the influence to bring the cause to the forefront. CIA man Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman) is short, fat, untidy, and ill-tempered, with a vocabulary to match. Bonnie (Adams) is Wilson’s bright young assistant, keeping track of his misdeeds, pushing him toward the right track.

In another film, these people might seem too large. But occupying Charlie Wilson’s universe, they’re just the right size. Here is a man who hits up the president of Pakistan for a stiff drink, then comes home to dodge a drugs-in-office investigation led by a young prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.

That sort of namedropping is in part a giant wink to the audience, who might otherwise tune out to such ancient history. It’s also the film’s connection to the present, which begins with subtleties but ends with a two-by-four to the face. As the covert campaign becomes increasingly successful, Sorkin’s screenplay begins to push more and more for current commentary. A speech made by a doddering old fart of a Congressman (Ned Beatty) asks the viewer to frown upon the shaky blend of religion and warfare; as he rallies the Afghan people with notions of God rooting for the “good” side in battle, we’re left to nod knowingly, understanding that the old coot is unwittingly planting the seeds for religion fanaticism. By the time we hit the final few scenes, Sorkin has abandoned all attempts at subtlety and has his characters just come right out and say it: we did the right thing by helping the Afghanis, but did the wrong thing by walking away too quickly afterward. And in case you didn’t quite get it, the film ends with a title card featuring a quote from Wilson himself, who complains about where American short-sightedness eventually led us.

This crude attempt to bold-face the movie’s ultimate message doesn’t gel with the rest of the film, which is as smooth as Wilson’s nightlife. The scenes set in Washington and Houston are slick and sophisticated, dryly funny with a pitch-perfect wit. Nichols and Sorkin are more delicate in handling these scenes and in contrasting them with the stark, somber sequences set in the Middle East - there is no laughter here, in the aftermath of battle, and watching Wilson and Co. retreat calmly to the Better Life, emotionally touched yet still sheltered by America, makes far more of a statement than any last-minute title card quotation. (The darkness even begins to seep into the American scenes, as we see Wilson becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his playboy lifestyle.)

These darker scenes keep “Charlie Wilson’s War” from becoming a straight-up, no-twist comedy, which is a good thing. The reality of warfare keeps the satire in check, forcing it to leave its feet on the ground. The comedy never goes broad, and the cast - delivering four brilliant performances, with a cantankerous Hoffman stealing the show - is left underplaying the material, a fact that adds to the sophistication.

And while too many other political films this year have spent too much time preaching, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” finale notwithstanding, lets the subtext do the talking. It charms us by mixing rapid-fire political banter with suave character moments, intellectual debate with lighthearted humor. Consider it “West Wing Lite,” with some of Hollywood’s finest at the helm.

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