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Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War
2007 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date April 22, 2008 / 29.98
Starring Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Cinematography Stephen Goldblatt
Production Design Victor Kempser
Film Editor John Bloom, Antonia Van Drimmelen
Original Music James Newton Howard
Written by Aaron Sorkin from the book by George Crile
Produced by Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
Directed by Mike Nichols

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tom Hanks and his Play-Tone production company assemble an A+ ensemble of talent for this clever and entertaining look at recent, almost forgotten history. Charlie Wilson's War is the story of a covert effort in the 1980s to wage a secret war. A congressman, a CIA operative and an ultra-conservative Texan join forces to do what America hasn't the will or the brains to do: help the Afghan Moujahedin fight back against brutal Russian invaders. In this case, the 'conspiracy' turns out to have entirely positive ends.

The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (TV's The West Wing) is smart and funny, almost a little too smart and funny. Director Mike Nichols concentrates on scenes showing the unlikely trio of world-savers putting together an international arms deal. Audiences barely following the film's premise can easily misread its ending as a triumph instead of a tragedy in the making. And then there's the slightly depressing feeling that the clever run-arounds and influence leveraging celebrated in this film, are more often used for far less noble causes.


Texas Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is well known as a heavy drinker and womanizer; his office girls dress provocatively and call themselves 'Charlie's Angels.' A liberal Democrat, Charlie takes an interest in the Afghan's losing fight against a Soviet invasion, and over that issue renews his relationship with Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a born-again right-wing Texas socialite and millionaire obsessed with defeating Communism. Joanne has Pakistan connections and Charlie wields influence on the disposition of a potentially unlimited 'secret' defense budget. The third part of the team is the gruff and vulgar C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who also wants to fight the Russians. While Charlie and Gust work up an unlikely arms deal between Israeli and Egyptian enemies, Joanne softens up the chairman of Charlie's defense committee, Representative Doc Long (Ned Beatty). Everything will go well, if Charlie can avoid an ethics investigation about his alleged use of cocaine use -- in a Las Vegas hot tub with strippers and a Hollywood producer!

Charlie Wilson's War is no easy movie to put together. It's about recent history and involves real people, most of which are still with us. It also needs to walk a narrow fence, politically. The two collaborating 'conspirators' to save Afghanistan are from political extremes. Charlie Wilson has to worry about his ethics issues: we first meet him in a Vegas high rise, up to his chin in liquor and naked women. That he's also a responsible legislator makes for an interesting real-life characterization. Joanne Herring is a filthy rich Texan accustomed to getting her own way on just about everything, and it takes a charmer like Wilson to meet her on even terms. Having Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts hop into bed as this pair is pretty amusing. Not so amusing is the realization that history is made like this: why bother to have a government at all? The movie may laud the efforts of this influential odd couple, but somewhere inside, an ugly satire is trying to get out.

Those familiar with The West Wing will be surprised by Charlie Wilson's War's sliding scale of historical evaluations. Dan Rather was unceremoniously pulled from his top roost in TV journalism a couple of years ago, but here we see him as a hero, alerting America with his on-site news coverage of the Soviet invasion. Only Rather, Wilson and Herring seem to realize that Russia's intention is to seize control of the oil-rich gulf states and dominate the Middle East. (hmmmm.) President Carter is mentioned as responding to the invasion with a limp boycott of the Olympics. Reagan's name barely comes up at all The CIA's official position seems to be to let the Afghans suffer so that the Russians will get bogged down like we were in Vietnam. While few in Washington seem to know or care about the difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Charlie's place on a couple of key committees controlling unregulated defense spending puts him in the perfect position to initiate and fund a covert foreign war. Official diplomacy is a total joke, but Charlie, Joanne and Gust's combined personal contacts make an ad hoc 'end run' war entirely possible.

If the story were fiction, Charlie Wilson's War would be a funny satire of barely-believable events. It instead celebrates C.I.A. guerilla warfare tactics as jolly good fun ("Let's kill some Russians!"), never mentioning that in the same years, the U.S. was subverting Central American countries and funding its own terrorist armies. People like Oliver North ran similar secret international arms deals completely outside governmental oversight. The film is careful to establish that the highly effective agents making the arms deal work are working in an isolated, wild card branch of the C.I.A. The film ends up glamorizing the whole slimy business.

Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin provide the three stars with an unbroken succession of funny, smart scenes. The dialogue is snappy without being smart-ass and Hanks lets just enough of his charm break through. Asked if he'll serve on an ethics committee, Charlie quips that he's against ethics on principle. He shares a number of good scenes with his savvy executive assistant Bonnie Bach (Amy Adams), who must work overtime to keep up with Charlie's wild lifestyle. Philip Seymour Hoffman has a fine time as the rude, direct Gust Avrakotos, a gruff cold warrior who just wants to kill Russians, and knows people like an ex- Navy Seal weapons expert who can order up the perfect mix of weaponry.

Julia Roberts delivers equal parts charm and aggravation as Joanne Herring, an intolerable woman perfectly suited for the kind of elitist political arm-twisting the mission requires. Joanne's an offensive b---- with people not her equals, but she tempers her Bible rhetoric when needed, and uses just the right wedge to get Ned Beatty's foolish politician onto Charlie's team.

The classy production glides through the light-dramatic scenes in Washington and Texas; Mike Nichols' staging of light comedy is better than ever. The special effects and war montage sequences are less sophisticated, emphasizing clarity over style. We see the new weapons helping the Afghans take back their country in a rather simple series of action scenes. Downtrodden Afghan fighters creep warily out with their shoulder launched stinger missiles and blow big Commie 'copters out of the sky. All rejoice. Repeat as needed.

One atypically crude sequence emphasizes Wilson's emotional state while surveying a vast refugee camp, as in a Steven Spielberg movie. The camera glimpses maimed children and wounded refugees, but only long enough to motivate Wilson's righteous crusade. Fair enough: Charlie Wilson's War is about Yankees helping Afghans, not the Afghans themselves. The brief scenes of combat are accomplished with effects that are good enough but not exceptional; one shot of a helicopter being blown up looks an awful lot like an American Huey instead of one of those Soviet dragonfly-like things.

Charlie Wilson's War recounts a blazing covert success with clarity and good humor. The moral foundation for defending Afghanistan is undeniable. Only in the last five minutes or so does Gust come forward with the news that radical Afghan elements entered Kabul the moment the Russians departed; Afghanistan is already under the control of fundamentalist Taliban despots. Aaron Sorkin's script tries to tell us that our own stupidity has once again set the stage for future tragedy, but I'm not sure how many viewers will see the irony. Washington won't spend a nickel to help the country regain its stability, but the C.I.A. gives Wilson a medal for defeating the Russians and precipitating the fall of the Soviet Union. If Charlie Wilson's War leaves us with an odd feeling, it's because we feel we're being prepared for a stronger statement than the one we get.

Universal's disc of the sophisticated Charlie Wilson's War packages a good quality enhanced widescreen transfer of this slickly photographed true story. The extras are two interesting featurettes. The Making of Charlie Wilson's War shows the three stars discussing the challenge of portraying real-life people, and includes plenty of footage of fun activity on the set, sometimes with the real Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring looking on. Who is Charlie Wilson? is a spirited bio on the Representative who went from an unknown quantity to playing a major role in the ending of the Cold War. Wilson himself goes on camera to comment on his wild lifestyle. The disc has audio tracks and subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

Universal offers a clip of the disc extra Who is Charlie Wilson? at this YouTube Link.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Charlie Wilson's War rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two featurettes, The Making of .. and Who is Charlie Wilson?.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 18, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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