Charlie Wilson's War (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's a curious thing. Whenever this much talent is assembled for a motion picture, the result inevitably seems to be a letdown. And to say that Charlie Wilson's War is topheavy with talent is to understate the matter. The cast features three Oscar winners and two nominees. The director has been nominated five times and won once. The writer is a multiple Emmy winner. The cinematographer has a couple of Oscar nominations and the composer has six. Almost against the odds, however, Charlie Wilson's War does not collapse under the weight of expectations. In fact, it meets them squarely without flinching. With its rapid pace, smart screenplay, and top-notch acting, this is one of the 2007 Oscar season's most appealing and compelling adult motion pictures.

The screenplay, penned by veteran writer Aaron Sorkin, is based on George Crile's biography of Congressman Charlie Wilson, who is credited as being one of the architects of the United States' covert war against the USSR in Afghanistan. While the film takes liberties with some of the details, the broad strokes are accurate. It's fascinating to look back at the pre-Taliban era and see some of the factors that led to the country's becoming destabilized. While the Taliban is never mentioned (it did not come into power until some six years after the conclusion of the events in this movie), it casts a long shadow over events that unfold during Charlie Wilson's War. It is impossible to watch this movie without considering the natural progression of events after the Soviet retreat.

When the film begins, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is the Democratic Congressman from Texas' second district. Known more for his love of parties and beautiful women, Good Time Charlie becomes aware of the situation in Afghanistan shortly after being named to the Defense Appropriations subcommittee in 1980. The budget for covertly opposing the USSR in Afghanistan at the time is $5 million. Charlie places a phone call and orders it doubled. But, as he learns from his friend, socialite and right wing mover-and-shaker Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), that's not going to be enough. Charlie ends up on a whirlwind tour of Pakistan, where he meets the President (Om Puri) and walks through the refugee camps. He returns to Washington with renewed determination to open up the coffers and get the "freedom fighters" (Afghan Mujahideen) weapons that will enable them to bring down Soviet helicopters. With the aid of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Charlie begins a campaign that eventually leads to the U.S. diverting more than $500 million of aid to Afghanistan.

Politically based stories of this sort run the risk of coming across as dry; that's not the case here. Director Mike Nichols keeps this fast-paced film moving and Sorkin peppers the screenplay with one-liners that vary from amusing to laugh-aloud funny. Charlie Wilson's War is justly classified as a drama, but someone could be excused for thinking it's a comedy. The film is more insightful, incisive, and intelligent than any of the many other current Middle East-themed motion pictures. Equally as important, it doesn't play politics with a loaded deck. This is not a repudiation of the totality of America's Afghanistan policy, although it makes it plain where the biggest error lay. Ironically, one could argue that the film's point validates aspects of the current Iraq strategy.

As the acting foundation of Charlie Wilson's War, Tom Hanks gives another fine performance, although it's not the kind of meaty role one normally associates with nominations. He shows fundamental changes to Charlie's nature as the man changes from a good ole boy (reminiscent of J.R. Ewing) to someone with a conscience. Hanks is perfect for the role. No mater how questionable a character's ethics, we always want to side with him if he's played by Hanks. That's currency in the emotional bank, and it works perfectly with Charlie: a disreputable individual who develops into something more. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the standout, shamelessly pilfering nearly every scene he's in, whether he's breaking glass, shouting at the top of his lungs, or uttering heartfelt profanities. If Hoffman only gets nominated for one of his trio of amazing 2007 performances (the other two being The Savages and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), it's going to be difficult picking for which he is the most deserving. Amy Adams, delightful as always, is Charlie's ever-faithful assistant. Ned Beatty plays Doc Long, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee. Emily Blunt shows up briefly (and memorably). If there's a negative, it's Julia Roberts. Either she's miscast or her heart isn't into acting, but this is an example of plastic and ineffective acting. There's little here of the fire and passion that earned the actress a statuette for Erin Brockovich. It's a shame, but it doesn't hurt the movie too much - Roberts is only in a handful of scenes.

There's some interesting musical stuff going on as well. Composer James Newton-Howard has borrowed the "He Shall Purify" chorus from Handel's Messiah and put it to good use. This is perhaps the first time any song from the oratorio has been used as a battle anthem. One could argue that it simply fits the mood but, considering the words ("He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness") and the context in which the song is employed, there is a strong element of irony here. It's a pretty subtle thing so many viewers won't get it.

With so many movies working on auto-pilot, it's easy to forget the pleasure of a well-written screenplay, and even easier to forget how good things can be when a director of Mike Nichols' pedigree brings the script to life. The film has it all: suspense, drama, and humor. There's a brilliant scene in which Charlie is conferring with Gust and his aides keep interrupting with news about his involvement in a cocaine scandal. The deftness of timing necessary in this scene is the kind of thing that would have Charlie Chaplin smiling (as is the "punch line," which involves a bottle of whiskey). Sorkin's screenplay is clean and crisp and not muddled by an overt political agenda (surprising, since Sorkin is openly political). From start to finish, Charlie Wilson's War is an unrelieved delight, and it works even better for those who understand the bridges that took us from the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan to 9/11 and beyond.

Charlie Wilson's War (United States, 2007)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2007
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1