Charlie Wilson’s War
Bullets, ballots and booze
By Devin D. O’Leary
Charlie Wilson's War
Directed by Mike Nichols
Cast: Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts
“Laws are like sausages,” states the famous aphorism by Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck. “It is better not to see them being made.” It's an appropriate quote to start off a review of the new poli-sci parody Charlie Wilson’s War, as the film spends an awful lot of time inside America's biggest sausage factory.
This breezy biopic is based on the unbelievable true story of Charles Wilson, a marginally admirable Texas congressman who spent most of the ’80s trying to find ways to fund rebel fighters in Afghanistan. On the surface, Congressman Wilson (played here by Tom Hanks) would seem like an odd man to adopt a cause like the fight for freedom in central Asia.
Wilson was--by his own admission, it would seem--an alcoholic, drug-abusing womanizer who stayed in office by dint of the fact that he worked for “the only congressional district in Texas that doesn't want anything.” One fateful day in 1980, however--as the congressman was hanging out in the hot tub of a penthouse fantasy suite in Las Vegas doing blow with a bunch of hookers--he saw a “60 Minutes” report about the mujahideen guerrilla forces in Afghanistan and their fight against the Soviet Army. Realizing these scrappy goat herders were among the last people on Earth actively opposing the Russians, Wilson tried to find ways of funding their impoverished resistance. It was, as history would have it, the last great battle of the Cold War.
Despite its heavy political subject, Charlie Wilson’s War is a zesty, satirical, laugh-out-loud-funny look at life on Capitol Hill. Wilson is portrayed as the antimatter universe version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s a sexist, sybaritic drunkard—but he's oddly idealistic. In the Afghani fight for freedom, Charlie sees a last, desperate chance to defeat the Communists. This idea is spurred on by Charlie’s prime benefactor (and occasional lover), a fanatically Christian billionaire named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts in a relatively small role). Thanks to funding from conservative voters in Texas and his connections as a member of the U.S. Congressional Appropriations Committee, Charlie Wilson launches the largest-ever CIA covert operation, smuggling millions of dollars worth of rocket launchers and other high-tech weapons into Afghanistan.
Assisting Charlie in this mad quest is a straight-talking, authority-bucking, hell-bent-for-leather CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his flat-out funniest role). Throughout the ’80s, this trio (Wilson, Herring and Avrakotos) employ favors, threats, blackmail, backdoor politics and plain old sympathy to wrangle unprecedented support for the Afghani freedom fighters.
Directed by old hand Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl, Primary Colors) and written by Aaron Sorkin (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing”), Charlie Wilson’s War has little in common with Hollywood's recent spate of serious, self-important war movies. This film is far more interested in the odd, incongruous character of Charlie Wilson and the mad machinations of American politics than in making any particular statement, liberal or conservative. That isn't to say the film doesn't have a point to it. Following the logical outcome of Charlie’s actions (arming militant Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan), you realize what many speculate those actions may have eventually contributed to (cough—Osama Bin Laden—cough).
Charlie Wilson's War does have a pointed moral about repercussions and the need for clear follow-through, but the film never feels pedantic. How much is true and how much is Hollywood fabrication is best left to the historians. (Word is Ms. Herring isn't too happy with her characterization.) Despite its humorous content, the politics at least feel painfully accurate.
Admittedly, it might have been nice if the film had worked up a bit more emotional content. The relationship between Wilson and Herring seems central but comes across as rather flat. While it’s clear Wilson develops a real sympathy for the Afghani people, it feels for most of the movie like he's simply being manipulated by outside forces. A little less joking and a bit more emoting and this film could really have driven its message home to viewers. Still, as a madcap Catch-22 primer on what crazy schemes drunk congressmen were dreaming up while you were sitting at home watching “The Facts of Life,” Charlie Wilson’s War is eye-opening entertainment.
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