Review: Charlie Wilson’s War

Why? Why is it that because we get Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the proverbial Hollywood Prom King and Queen, in a true story written for the screen by Tinseltown’s chess club president Aaron Sorkin, do we think it must be socially important and award worthy? Add in perennial literati favorites director Mike Nichols and Philip Seymour Hoffman and the pedigree for Charlie Wilson’s War is impeccable. You might as well send the Oscars now.

Except not.

Charlie Wilson’s War is an amazing story that makes a fine movie, but it could be so much more. Sorkin and Nichols never really get far into the head of Charlie Wilson (Hanks), who, in 1980 decided to try and help the Afghanis repel the Soviet invasion. The film opens with Wilson, a well known drunk and womanizing congressman from Texas, sitting in a hot tub with naked strippers and cocaine-using Hollywood producers. Within seconds of the film starting, however, we see Wilson diverting his attention to the TV and noticing the Afghan situation. Immediately he seems to be much more than he appears at first glance.

He heads back to Washington and doubles the CIA’s budget for covert operations in Afghanistan. He is well aware of the situation, even before Joanne Herring (Roberts), the sixth richest woman in Texas, comes aboard and asks Charlie to see what he can do about helping those poor people out.

By this time, Charlie gets hooked in with Gust Avrakatos (Hoffman, who is making a wonderful career out of playing this type of character) and we are off and running. Between the three of them, they are able to negotiate unprecedented deals between the Israelis, Pakistanis and Egyptians, arm the rebels with what they need in order to shoot down the gunships and get congress to pony up a billion dollars to pay for it. What we never get, though, is why.

Charlie Wilson is a very shrewd politician. He explains he happens to come from a district where no one needs anything so he is able to vote yes and gather I.O.U.’s, but Sorkin never sufficiently explains why a hard partying guy is going to go to the mat for a group of refugees and freedom fighters beyond his one trip to see the refugee camps and the devastation perpetrated on the victims. If it were true that this is all it would take, that politicians just need to be shown the right thing to do – then there would be no situation in Darfur right now. There had to be more going on and it felt as if we, as an audience, were cheated out of some of that depth in favor of jingoistic flag waving. Only Avrakatos seems to be genuine when he responds to the question of why he got involved with the flippant response “I had nothing else to do.” From the little we see, we can spot his sarcasm a mile away and we know he is lying. However, were he answering for Wilson, that would seem almost logical.

Like Schindler’s List before it, Charlie Wilson’s War places an ordinary man at the crossroads of history and we get the benefit of watching him make the right, humane choices. But unlike Spielberg’s film, Nichols never bothers to explore the motivations, trusting that his audience will be so relieved to see someone in office doing something for the right reasons that they will forget dramatic thrust.

Don’t get me wrong. What Charlie Wilson and his team did was amazing and verifiably changed the way the political climate was heading over the past twenty-five years, but to me, the story of why is just as important as the story of how. And Hanks could have pulled it off. He’s getting better as he gets older. You could see him trying to find the underpinnings of subtext but there was very little for him to grab on to. Hoffman, as stated, owns the frumpy, not gonna play by your rules middle manager. The only weak link in the acting chain is Roberts, who still looks great, but feels out of her depth here.

Charlie Wilson’s War is an important skirmish, but the battle for substance is still being fought.

(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)

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