Carhlie Wilson's War
|Tom Hanks||Charlie Wilson|
|Julia Roberts||Joanne Herring|
|Philip Seymour Hoffman||Gust Avrakatos|
|Amy Adams||Bonnie Bach|
|Ned Beatty||Doc Long|
|Erick Avari||Avi Perlman|
|Directed by||Mike Nichols|
“You are a man”, Pakistan’s President Zia observes to visiting Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, “of many character flaws”.
Zia (Om Puri) has a point. In the first five minutes of this movie, we have seen Charlie (Tom Hanks) frolicking in a Las Vegas hot tub with a handful (so to speak) of naked women and sharing a few lines of cocaine in the back of a limo. If these be character flaws, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin choose to get them out in front right from the start. Charlie has a Congressional office staffed with smart young lovelies known as Charlie’s Angels (one of them explains “Charlie always says ‘You can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.’”) And Charlie Wilson is not a man who considers the time of day to be a factor in the enjoyment of a glass of whiskey.
“But,” continues Zia, “you never promise anything you can’t deliver”.
And there, in a nutshell, the Pakistani strongman has summed up the central figure in this sublimely witty, intelligent, and significant cinematic lesson on a startlingly crucial piece of recent history.
As Charlie is frolicking in that convivial hot tub, a news broadcast on the TV over the suite’s bar catches his attention. It is Dan Rather clad in a burnoose and reporting from the front lines in Afghanistan on the struggles of the Mujahadeen to overthrow their invading Soviet oppressors. “Could you turn that up?” Charlie asks the bartender.
This, too, is Charlie to the core: a man whose inquiring mind is able to absorb business along with pleasure, and make a healthy cocktail of the two. Despite his good-old-boyishness, this liberal Texas Democrat is a smart guy, a shrewd politician, and a man who is both interested in global affairs. The glimpse of the Rather newscast about the Mujahadeen’s lack of money and weapons makes an impression on Charlie, and when he returns to Washington he uses his position on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to raise the military’s meager annual budget for Afghanistan, from $5 million to $10 million. The year is 1987, it is Reagan’s America, and the Cold War is still the ruling global template.
Enter a couple of characters who will be instrumental in upping the ante. Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) is a wealthy right-wingTexas socialite, fundraiser, and player in international diplomacy. Joanne hates the Commies, and uses a little no-nonsense pillow talk to send Charlie on a fact-finding mission to Pakistan to educate him on the plight of the Afghan freedom fighters and refugees. He meets with Zia, visits a refugee camp, and is baptized into the cause.
The other key figure in this story is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a rough-hewn CIA maverick who also hates Commies and has been working against the agency tide to try to help the Afghani freedom fighters kick the Soviets’ butts. These three come together to aid the cause, increase U.S. spending on weapons and training in Afghanistan to a billion dollars, boot the Russians out of that country, and start the ball rolling that will finally crash into the Berlin Wall and bring the Cold War to an end.
But balls don’t stop bouncing when you lose interest in them, as Charlie points out near the end of this disarmingly thoughtful movie. The world is not a chapter book with loose ends tied up, and happily ever after written above The End. And so the money and weaponry and training that are pumped into a faraway land for one purpose at one time can end up, if attention is not paid, serving another purpose at another time. The aid to Afghanistan is all covert – the U.S. cannot be caught interfering in that war, and so care must be taken that nothing is traceable to Uncle Sam – and once the Soviets are beaten, there’s no interest in following up with positive aid to that impoverished Asian country. Charlie’s plea to his colleagues for funding for roads and schools there falls on incredulous ears. This lack of follow-through is a recipe for the breeding of a Taliban, and for the rise of a world order as terrifying as the Cold War ever was.
Nichols and Sorkin have made a Cadillac of a movie, a handsome, beautifully designed chassis with a powerful motor and luxurious attention to detail. It is captivatingly enjoyable, wickedly funny, and it tells a story that we need to hear. It does this with top quality materials – rich, clear widescreen cinematography from Stephen Goldblatt, canny editing by John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen, and superb performances all around. Amy Adams, currently enchanting audiences in Enchanted, is perfect as Charlie’s top aide, a capable and compassionate young woman who tries to keep her boss on the straight and narrow, and helps steer him back when he goes off course. Hanks is not the casting you might reach for in looking for the Charlie Wilson model, but the intelligence he brings to the character makes the point, and his effortless acting skills fill in the rest. And Hoffman is a crude, disheveled delight, a sly ball of energy and street smarts.
Charlie Wilson’s War is an unlikely triumph, with its Cold War obsession with demonizing and killing Russians. Its only down moments are the action sequences toward the end, when exploding planes and helicopters fill the screen. But Nichols and company tell a true story that entertains thoroughly and then sends you out with something to talk about.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be