If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then Washington DC must be an orgy of Caligulian proportions. There among the conservative and liberal, special interests and the accompanying pork, lies the inherent evil - and the distinct beauty - of the democratic system. To use another tired cliché, we are what we eat, and by continually electing representatives who put personal agenda and individual power above that of their constituency, our policy dishes have been paltry at best. Back before ‘W’ put us in the center of a Middle Eastern maelstrom, very few career Congressmen were thinking about the rise of radicalism in the region. In fact, the only official paying any attention was a representative from Texas named Charlie Wilson - and he was more concerned about Communism than the Qur’an.
As the unlikely hero of Mike Nichol’s pristine period comedy Charlie Wilson’s War
(new to DVD from Universal), our lone star guff-slinger is an endearing ‘80s icon. When we first meet the man - in the person of a terrific Tom Hanks - he’s on a fact finding tour…of a Las Vegas hot tub filled with strippers. Cocaine sitting neatly along the edge, an adult beverage poised precariously in his hand, he’s an old school powerbroker in a glammed up Greed decade domain. Wilson can’t understand why Washington is so complicated. To him, the legislative process is who you know matched with nepotism, ass-kissing, and lots of reciprocal favors. It’s the very definition of ‘politics’. Yet when he discovers the fate of the people of Afghanistan, and the seeming desire for domination by an invading Soviet Army, all Wilson sees it R-E-D.
Luckily Houston socialite Joanne Herring (a wonderful Julia Roberts) has been paying attention, and she wants her local representative (and sometime lover) to help funnel cash to the region. Of course, Wilson doesn’t realize the wall of opposition he’ll face, nor does he lack the nerve to attack such stonewalling head on. He will need some help, however - and Herring can only sweet talk so many of her male admirers. Enter disgruntled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos. Angry at the agency for overlooking hot zones while focusing on less important domestic drivel, he latches onto Wilson in a way that will redefine both men. With the Congressman’s network of string-pullers and promises, an initial outlay of cash from Herring, and a whole lot of chutzpah, this trio will change the face of the Arab world - for short term better, and long term worse.
At this point in his illustrious career, 77 year old Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would stop him. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant The Graduate), but he also helmed other challenging efforts like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, his tendency is to beat people over the head with his agenda, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). Those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.
Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritanical PC times, this story of a lecherous wheeler dealer and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Sure, the script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular and Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.
How the filmmaker makes all of this palatable - and plausible - is one of War‘s greatest achievements. Sorkin’s snarky humor helps (everyone here is Algonquin witty and wise beyond their position) as does the wonderful work by all the actors, including current “It” girl Amy Adams as Wilson’s disaster-skirting Congressional aide. But Nichols doesn’t simply pile on the laughs. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, our hero views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves.
These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2008 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change. The added content on the DVD, including some historical context as part of the Making-Of and personal insight from Wilson himself, helps extend this sentiment. There has always been a very human side to the media-marginalized Arab world. Sadly, few films have touched on it.
From the fabulous acting - Hanks and Roberts make a extraordinary pair, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is flawless as the gruff and grumble Gust - to the ironic present day applications (a celebration is marred by the sound of…a large jetliner) Charlie Wilson’s War is one of last year’s best films. Even better, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be.
Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or Alan J. Pakula. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. It’s a reflection of the man at the center of this prescient story.