[24 April 2008]
Did you know Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson helped bring down the Soviet Union? Moviegoers got that history lesson with the December 2007 release of Charlie Wilson’s War, one of the year’s few war-related films which actually made some coin. Blame its stellar cast—Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts—for bucking the box office trend. A keener eye can credit Aaron Sorkin’s dizzying script which made the densest political jargon go down like a cool glass of lemonade—even if a certain president barely got a mention.
Charlie Wilson’s War opens with our hero, the near-fatally flawed congressman (Hanks) pruning up in a hot tub alongside some strippers. It’s a funny scene, one of a dozen tightly choreographed set pieces displaying Charlie’s appetites. Few directors nail the human condition at its weakest better than Mike Nichols.
We soon learn Charlie’s political and personal skills are more than a match for his ability to chase a skirt. The congressman takes a breath between drunken escapades to study the Soviet Union’s recent invasion of Afghanistan. That curiosity leads him to visit the war-torn country to see the atrocities being committed there.
He eventually teams up with a Houston socialite (Roberts) and a rumbled CIA agent (Hoffman) to find out how to better arm the Afghan rebels, who are left to fight the Soviet invaders with antiquated weapons. Together, they cajole agents both near and far to give Afghans the kind of missiles that actually bring down Russian aircraft.
Sorkin’s signature dialogue—smart, rapid fire chatter that packs a punch—makes Charlie Wilson’s War the most engaging poly-sci class you’ll ever attend. It helps that Sorkin overloads his characters with pithy comebacks, expertly delivered by the triple leads.
“Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?” Roberts asks early in the film.
“Tradition, mostly,” replies Charlie, in a modulated tone that befits the scene. Roberts is the weakest link here, but her screen presence and sharp features make up for her intermittent Texas drawl.
Charlie Wilson’s War serves up complex geopolitical material with heaping helpings of humor. Sorkin also laces the narrative with simplistic imagery to make sure all audiences can grasp the significance.
The scenes in Afghanistan which show the plight of the people are harrowing, if a bit heavy handed for the purpose of convincing Charlie what needs to be done. They do allow Nichols to serve up some stinging black humor, comparing the harrowing slices of torture with the naivete of Charlie and his assistant (Amy Adams).
The US may rally to the aid of Afghan rebels, but the country doesn’t come away without a scratch. Politicians up and down the halls of Congress appear insulated and arrogant, hopelessly detached from the world around them. And the film’s epilogue offers a cautionary tale of what’s to come, neatly encapsulated by an old adage, as told here by Hoffman’s character: “A boy gets a horse…what good fortune…a boy falls off the horse, what bad fortune…the boy doesn’t get called to war because of war .. what good fortune.”
He compares that story to Afghanistan .. what good fortune the Afghan rebels fought back the Soviets ... but as we would later learn the power vacuum that resulted led to the rise of the Taliban ...
And let’s take a moment to regale Hoffman’s Oscar-nominated performance, prototypically larger than life without the kind of Pacino-esque scene chewing that too often goes with that adjective.
Nichols and Hanks make a fine team, too, the former’s taste for mass appeal comedies with brains melding with Hanks’ incorrigible charms as the title character. It’s a shame the film’s final scenes, in which we see the consequences of Charlie’s hustle, lack the snap that typifies much of the movie. No amount of war footage can overpower Sorkin’s fiery script.
As a historical document, Charlie Wilson’s War is hardly the final say on a key chapter in the Cold War. Historians, particularly those on the ideological right, cried over the complete absence of President Ronald Reagan from the film’s depiction of the Soviet Union’s last gasp, their thoughts echoed by the real-life Charlie Wilson. (Note: I spoke to the real life Charlie Wilson recently and he regretted Reagan’s absence here.)
The DVD comes with one perfunctory “making of” feature and a Who is Charlie Wilson segment. The latter sheds a modicum of light on the colorful congressman, although history buffs should look to harder news sources for the rest of the story.
The making-of segment is typical of too many DVD extras. We get plenty of back-slapping among the leads and too little of the grit behind the filmmaking process. Sorkin comes off best here, highlighting his fire for the project, while Roberts is shown to be the clown princess on set. That’s all well and good, but let’s leave that kind of fluff for a future bloopers reel.