Charlie Wilson’s War [dir. Mike Nichols]
Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen.
While on a ‘fact finding mission’ in a Las Vegas hot tub loaded with strippers and cocaine, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson learns of the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wondering why the US hasn’t responded to such a blatant act of invasion, he soon discovers that no one considers the situation a threat. But when Houston socialite Joanne Herring asks him to look into some covert funding for the freedom fighters, their longstanding relationship fuels Wilson’s interest. Before long, the Congressman is visiting refugee camps and bringing his fight to the floor of his House Subcommittee. With the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos and many insider connections, Wilson discovers what the Afghanis need - surface to air missiles that can take down the plague of Russian helicopters decimating the landscape. Getting the money won’t be easy, but with his reputation both in and outside of the Rotunda, if anyone can do it, Charlie Wilson can.
At this point in his illustrious career, Mike Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would blame him for such passivity. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the emerging ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant proto-slacker statement, The Graduate), but has also helmed other symbols of cinematic significance like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, Nichols is less than nimble. His tendency is to beat people over the head with his stances, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). It’s not a terrible habit - many of the movies he’s made have the same entertainment spark as his commercial successes (Working Girl, The Birdcage). But 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 Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman 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. Nichols can be accused of pandering or taking sides. The script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular in that regard. 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.
It’s not that obvious at first. Tom Hanks, handling the lead roll like he’s just been cast in The Rat Pack Swing Washington, is all beaming smiles and smacked female backsides. He’s James Bond without the continental charms and license to kill. At first, Wilson seems to be formed out of swaggers and excess appetites. Even when he takes up the cause in Afghanistan, it’s more of a show of personal power (he’s the key vote that many of his fellow politicians count on) than a real concern or cause. During these sequences of backdoor wheeling and debauchery fueled dealing, Nichols lulls us into a sense of satiric complacency. We wonder how a movie so mired in moxie is going to turn around and deliver the proper policy denouement.
And then we move to the battlefield. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, Wilson 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 2007 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.
As the baffles which this character careens off of, Nichols provides two stellar stalwarts. Looking a lot less glamorous than her rich witch Texas money baroness would bear out, Julie Roberts is excellent as Joanne Herring. With untold wealth to waste and Wilson as her power pawn, she’s more than just a bank account. There’s a brilliant scene where a post-coital Herring reapplies her face, and the diligence and dedication she shows in putting on this powder and pancake façade is just fabulous. Besides, Roberts has great chemistry with Hanks. One could easily see the two helming a series of retro-romantic comedies. They’re so winning, so endearingly effervescent that you can’t help but love them.
But the real maverick here is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the gruff, gritty Greek CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos, the kind of man whose done it all and seen it all. His no nonsense, world weary wisdom is a breath of protocol breaching candor in rooms full of stagnant Washington air. He’s the cutting edge to Wilson’s wide-eyed optimism, the calculated con to the Congressman’s cheerleading pro. If he wasn’t already an established star, it’s the kind of performance that would elevate an actor’s game. As the fulcrum between Hanks and Roberts, the realistic against their pert smile optimism, Hoffman is sensational.
And so is the rest of the film. Nichols does a good job of balancing moments of meaning against just plain partying. Wilson is viewed as a hard drinking womanizer, but there are times when the director let’s Hanks get reflective and hurt. They work to keep the film from falling over into parody. Similarly, the last act revitalization of the Afghan forces has a wonderful Fox News fakeness to it. It makes it easy to forget that this is the same rebellion that will eventually revert to Islamic fundamentalism and provide a proving ground for future terrorists in training. Nichols doesn’t let us off the hook either. During a balcony scene between Hanks and Hoffman, a sound is heard that reminds us of why Wilson’s fervor eventually became his folly.
Of course, 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 films like All the President’s Men. 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.