Doodad Kind of Town

"Charlie Wilson’s War"
December 27, 2007, 7:22 pm
Filed under: Mike Nichols

I wanted to like “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but mostly it just made me uneasy.

With Mike Nichols in the director’s chair, and Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead roles, I knew I was in for some slick, sophisticated, well-acted entertainment. But it left a distinctly sour taste in my mouth afterwards.

Wilson was the Texas congressman who obtained funding for a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan – a war that the Afghan mujahideen, equipped with American-supplied weapons and training, eventually won. It led directly to the end of the cold war and the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which most people would agree were desirable outcomes in the short run. But six years after 9/11, we all know to what end those weapons and training were eventually applied. As the quote from Wilson which is framed in the film’s final shot reminds us: “We fucked up the endgame.”

Tom Hanks plays Wilson with a blend of rascally charm and soulful conviction. Wilson was a boozer and a ladies’ man (he explains the universal comeliness of his congressional staff thus: “You can teach ’em to type, but you can’t teach ’em how to grow tits”), but also a dedicated liberal of genuine political conscience. The opening scene, in which Wilson watches Dan Rather’s coverage of Afghanistan intently while soaking in a Vegas hot tub with three strippers, establishes Wilson’s moral ambiguity with clever economy.

Julia Roberts plays Joanne Herring, a wealthy, passionately anti-communist Texas divorcee who goads Wilson into staging a covert war through an expert application of sexual wiles and tough-minded calculation. Like Wilson, she’s also a bundle of contradictions; a fervent Christian, she is nonetheless all too willing to take Charlie to bed or indulge in a Bombay martini or two.

And that points to what I like most about “Charlie Wilson’s War” – the notion that people can embrace passionate political and spiritual ideals even as they take unapologetic pleasure in the wordly pleasures of sex and spirits. In a film season full of dogged good intentions and boring, over-earnest do-gooders, the randy good spirits of this film’s leading characters are blessedly welcome.

Rounding out the trio of protagonists is Philip Seymour Hoffman as rogue CIA agent Gus Avrakotos. His coarse, pugnacious refusal to suffer fools gladly has tarnished his career at the agency. Approached by Wilson, he sees a chance to actually accomplish something in the fight against the Soviets – a fight to which the American government has given little more than lip service at film’s starting point in 1980.

It almost goes without saying that all the actors are great; Nichols nearly always leads his actors to deliver award-worthy work. Hanks has both the easy charm and the inner conviction to fully embody the complexities of Charlie Wilson, and his performance both grounds and enlivens the film. Hoffman perfectly captures all the nuances of a frustrated outsider who is dying to get into the heat of a real fight. For what it’s worth, I’ve never been a member of the Julia Roberts fan club. (For years, it seemed her acting skills consisted entirely of defiantly tossing her wild auburn mane while fixing the nearest male with her patented “I’m tough, yet vulnerable” gaze.) But Nichols coaxed out one of her least predictable performances in the otherwise loathsome “Closer” a few years back, and he works magic again with Roberts on this outing. She sinks her teeth into the role of Texan grand dame with dazzling conviction. Now that Roberts is 40 – and thus past the hair-tossing phase of her career – I’m looking forward to more work from her at this level.

It also goes without saying that Nichols is most adept at handling scenes with crisp, smart, political dialogue, and there are plenty of those in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Pay attention, though, as some of these conversations are so heavy on background information as to be challenging to follow. In particular, an early scene in which Charlie soaks in the tub as Joanne briefs him on the Afghanistan situation while primping in front of a makeup mirror is hard to watch; she delivers complicated exposition while using the point of an open safety pin to separate her freshly mascaraed lashes. I guarantee you will not hear a word she’s saying, because your brain will be too busy screaming “JESUS! She’s going to stab herself in the eye with that thing!!!”

Nichols is far less assured in scenes that ought to have emotional wallop, but don’t. Wilson is converted to the Afghan’s cause after spending day in one of their refugee camps, but these scenes of wounded children and grieving mothers feel perfunctory and detached. Compassionate, heart-wrenching material has never been Nichols’ forte, and “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a bit poorer for that deficiency.

The shadow of 9/11 hangs low and dark over “Charlie Wilson’s War,” undercutting whatever sense of excitement and purpose its characters may have by subtly invoking our queasy knowledge of what would come later. It was especially uncomfortable to see this film, as I did, on the same morning that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan. (There is a scene in which Pakistan’s then-prime minister – who killed Bhutto’s father in a political coup years earlier – is honored at a Houston luncheon.) And even though screenwriter Aaron Sorkin winds up with a few quick scenes that underscore the ambiguity of Wilson’s victory, you still come away from the film a little confused. Those final scenes feel hastily tacked on to a story that mostly celebrates its larger-than-life characters as heroes.


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