As a comedy, "Charlie Wilson's War" is witty in a peculiar appreciate-but-not-participate way. As a drama about the Afghanistan war against the Russians, it's two battles and a heated presidential screaming match short of an epic. The feature rests in a curious place between a cocktail hour night at the movies and a piece of filmmaking that stirs political conversation. In other words, it's a bit of a bore.
Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was a Texas congressman in the 1980s who lived the high life of Playmates, politics, and cocaine. When socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) prompts Charlie to consider the plight of Afghanistan during the Russian invasion, the smooth-talking politician sobers up and starts to pull the strings of Washington, shaking some money loose to arm the Afghans with much more than antique rifles. At his side is CIA wizard Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a blunt man of amazing covert skill, who helps facilitate Charlie and his blue sky dreams of a free Afghanistan.
As a cinematic package, there's much to admire about "War." It's a frisky story of misplaced ambition from the laptop of Aaron Sorkin (adapted from book by George Crile), and written with his traditional verbal fastball velocity, in part to help the story from sinking into the political muck. The swiftness of the interplay is a saving grace often when the picture needs it the most, arming the actors with pointed, witty retorts that heighten the performances.
Under the command of director Mike Nichols, "War" strains so hard to be light, it's difficult to nail down what the point of this film actually is. Certain moments play like a "Thin Man" update, while others a chilling snapshot of wartime blues in the heart of Afghanistan (it's all fun and games until the armless little girls show up). "War" never settles long enough on either end of the spectrum to make a lasting impression, rendering the final product aggravatingly distant and disturbingly brief, clocking in at 90 minutes. It doesn't allow much room to discuss the Afghanistan war, much less the whole, ya know...birth of modern terrorism that trailed Charlie's acts of heroism.
To express the boomerang of death that would come to haunt America, Nichols uses a shot of Charlie looking thoughtfully into the night sky while the sound effect of a low-flying plane roars through the speakers. Subtlety or cop-out, you tell me.
While the story lacks density, the performances, especially from Hanks and Hoffman, are gorgeous creations, fearless in presenting the lascivious aspects of the do-gooders, but also riddled with buoyant comedic touches only these gifted actors could deliver. Hoffman is especially a brute, moussing his hair to the ceiling and hating the world behind tinted glasses, turning Gust into a fireball of sarcasm and reality checks. Certainly Hoffman gravitates toward these characters time and again, yet it's still a joy to see him portray crunchy fellows. He's damn good at it.
There's a certain champagne mood to "Charlie Wilson's War" that's magnetic and intermittently entertaining, but there's no meat on these bones. When dealing with larger-than-life personalities, world conflicts, and a future of unspeakable misery, 90 minutes and some sugared patter just doesn't satisfy.
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