If there wasn't already plenty of documentation to back it up, especially the book of the same name by the late CBS correspondent George Crile, you might have a hard time believing that Charlie Wilson's War is based on a true story. The tale and its larger-than-life characters seem too outrageous to believe. The truth, they say, is stranger than fiction, and this film is proof.
Mike Nichols, the 76-year-old director who last visited politics as unusual in Primary Colors, shows he's every bit as much in command of Charlie Wilson as he was of Benjamin Braddock in his 1967 film, The Graduate. And yet, for all of his considerable talent, one can't help getting the feeling that even the director is being directed on this one. This is one film where even the minutest detail is laid out in the script.
Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President) is easily and effortlessly Hollywood's most politically astute scribe. In his first film since more than a decade doing superlative work on television (Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Sorkin has found a too-outrageous-to-be-true story that both appeals to his inner politico and flawlessly suits his audacious talent. Charlie Wilson's War has all of his flash and blistering one-liners on display, but dials back somewhat on the customary rat-tat-tat delivery. The riotous manner in which the script is written is the spoonful of sugar that helps the history lesson go down.
Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) is the uncle you had growing up who always embarrassed your parents to no end, but whom you secretly loved because he was the only one who seemed to know how to have any fun. Nichols and Sorkin wisely show us what kind of man Charlie is, rather than merely tell us.
When first we meet Charlie (Tom Hanks), it is 1980 and he is submerged up to his neck in a Las Vegas jacuzzi, surrounded by half-naked strippers and Playboy bunnies who are ingesting single-malt whiskey and cocaine with equal relish. Charlie's D.C. office isn't all that different. Surrounded by a staff of beautiful office assistants whom he refers to as his "jailbait," Charlie drinks at ten in the morning, dodges an ethics violations for lunch, spends the afternoon skirting important votes and whittles away the cold, night hours with some new, long-legged piece of legislation. Mr. Smith he is not.
While "Good Time Charlie" may skirt the line and occasionally even cross it, his district seems willing to overlook his indiscretions so long as he keeps the bacon coming. And Charlie, possessed of a keen knowledge of history, foreign affairs and government power structures, shows time and again that little can withstand his charismatic charm. But unbeknownst to this loveably crass "man of many character flaws," his life is about to take a very serious turn. He is about to launch the largest, most successful covert operation of the entire Cold War.
Constituent, sometime lover of Charlie, socialite and sixth-richest woman in Texas, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) is a powerful, right wing, Southern blueblood who has taken on Afghanistan, recently overrun by Russian troops, as her pet project. Herring uses all of her supple wiles to convince Charlie, who serves on the Congressional Appropriations Committee, to go to Pakistan and see for himself the refugee camp where hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled the Soviet advance now live in squalor. The camp, full of starving families, orphans, and mangled children, breaks Charlie's heart and fills his belly with fire.
He immediately returns home and begins convincing his colleagues to set aside more money for the Mujahideen resistance fighters, ballooning the budget from five million dollars to one billion. Charlie finds ready muscle in Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a surly CIA spook who loathes Commies about as much as he hates his bean-counting supervisors. Years spent overseas has given Avrakotos all the shady contacts he needs to get weapons into the hands of Wilson's freedom fighters.
The result is staggering. As more and more Russian helicopter gunships fall from the sky, demoralization sets in, and eventually the Russian troops give up control of the country and return home. Soon after, the Berlin Wall crumbles and a peaceful coup seizes control of Moscow, wresting control from the Communist hardliners. While the script no doubt simplifies a mind-bogglingly nuanced process, it reveals that Charlie Wilson, a Congressman of no name and ill repute, is heralded as one of this country's most influential soldiers in the war against Soviet aggression.
Hanks is terrific as the genteel, smooth-talking, womanizing politician. It is amazing how well Sorkin's words sound in his mouth. Roberts, in a smaller role than many might expect, especially after so long a Hollywood hiatus, can still light up the room just by walking into it. But neither actor, for all their looks, charm and history, carry this film. There are some performers for whom you simply run out of adjectives to use and creative ways to praise—and Hoffman is such an actor. As the hot-tempered, blue-collar Avrakotos, Hoffman is an unmovable force of nature and the unshakable bulwark of the film.
Charlie Wilson's War is exceptionally well paced. Clocking in at only an hour and a half, the film's eight-year time span goes by with lightning speed yet never feels rushed. Though we see very little of the sort of tedious backroom deals and influence peddling that surely took place, we are too caught up in the narrative to mind. This isn't a film about the finer details. It is drama played for laughs, reality repackaged as satire, politics filtered through farce. The film intentionally embraces a cartoonish lack of realism at times, especially in scenes involving the Soviet helicopters attacking villages and the Stinger missiles that are used to swat them from the sky. This veneer of not-quite-real adds to the film's satirical nature, reminding one of sort of cinematic wink Stanley Kubrick used to give audiences in films such as 1964's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
For all of its self-congratulatory nature, Charlie Wilson's War is shot through with an inescapable, rueful irony. It is not enough to deal knockout blows to superpowers if we are not also willing to see the endgame through. In meddling in others' affairs, the film suggests, we opened Pandora's box. By outfitting and training the Mujahideen, America inadvertently created the very Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders it now must fight. For Sorkin and Nichols, subtext is everything, and the key to decoding the entire film comes only in the final moments. It is enough to make one's laughter die in one's throat.
Charlie Wilson's War hopes to be the one politically charged film this year not to turn viewers away in disgust. Despite some exceptional power on both sides of the camera, 2007's war-on-terror themed films (The Kingdom, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, and A Mighty Heart) have bombed at the box office. Charlie Wilson's War, the odd comedy out, hopes to subvert their fate with a smart, funny, sophisticated story for grown-ups that steers clear of Iraq-fatigue and instead buries its sardonic message beneath bourbon and bimbos. It just might work.Discussion starters
- James 1:15 speaks of a process by which sin grows increasingly stronger with time until, in the end, it brings forth death. What parallels can you draw between James' admonition and America's actions in Afghanistan?
- Does the film force you consider the destructive power of unforeseen consequences, even when we set out initially to do good? Where is the line between compassionate intervention and narcissistic interference? Is there one?
- Charlie Wilson's hedonistic lifestyle is suddenly put in perspective after he visits a refugee camp and sees for himself the conditions of the less fortunate. How can we, this Christmas season, take this example to heart?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Charlie Wilson's War is rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use. The film features frequent female upper body nudity, sexual situations (though no actual sex), rampant profanity including numerous instances of taking the Lord's name in vain, and pervasive alcohol and hard drug use.
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