“Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007): The Zenmaster (Review)
In honor of the passing of one of the all-time great actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, CineKatz has allocated part of the month of February for retro-reviews celebrating his long and illustrious career.
One of my favorite movies of 2007 was Charlie Wilson’s War, a political biographical drama directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, and adapted from a book of the same title by George Crile.
It’s 1980, the Soviet Union has invaded Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen is fighting an uphill battle against them – a story that has gotten far too little appreciation by the American public despite being one of the biggest threats to national security in the 20th Century. U.S. Congressman “Good Time” Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) despite being investigated by the federal government for his rowdy social life, sits as one of twelve on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which helps to fund CIA operations.
Upon seeing the news, a sympathetic Charlie spontaneously doubles the Afghan budget, which is still too small to make any kind of meaningful impact, but it does get the attention of the sixth wealthiest woman in Texas and friend with benefits, Joanne Herring whose Christian faith has spurred a special interest in the issue and who encourages him to do more and offers her help. He visits Pakistan and tours a refugee camp, befriends the CIA liaison in charge Gust Arvakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), gets the Israelis and key fellow Democrats in the House on board to substantially increase funding to supplying the Afghan militias with the right kind of Stinger Missiles to shoot down the Soviet helicopters. Wilson’s crusade takes time and diplomacy to build but evolves into one of the most effective (if not THE most) American covert operations in history and establishes the groundwork for the Reagan Doctrine, the teeth of our foreign policy that brought the Cold War to an end in our favor.
If the film has problems it’s mostly on the level of tone, occasionally being a bit too much of a comedy for some scenes that probably should be taken a lot more seriously. A common problem in almost all of Sorkin’s work is the lack of cinematic gravitas, which is also partially why I’m not overly fond of the very beginning – a well shot award ceremony for Charlie Wilson that we see again later on, but it’s time that would have been better spent showing the slaughter of civilians in Afghanistan or something like that, only to then cut to Charlie Wilson’s party antics with the intended contrast.
Tom Hanks is, as usual, mesmerizing in the role of Charlie Wilson, perfectly capturing the charm and eloquence of that Texan gentleman and Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a comical character out of a ghost, with his first appearance being a fight with his boss about something entirely unrelated and it’s great. The characters are straightforward in their goals but it’s a lot of fun to watch their personalities interact with the rest of the world. There’s a great scene where Wilson is bringing Arvakotos in and out of his office because he’s simultaneously working on a PR statement with his staffers regarding the drug-related investigation against him, only for Arvakotos to hilariously change gears on him.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a smart and engaging piece of drama that talks a lot, but builds tension and breaks through with patriotic colors, yet ends on a bittersweet note of foreshadowing darker days ahead due to post-war inaction. As always with Sorkin’s work – whose stylistic quippy dialogue christens the entire piece – that end message is the film’s most poignant piece of substance. America achieved a spectacular covert victory against our enemies in the 1980s thanks to Wilson & co.’s efforts, but then we lost sight of the future and failed to foresee what our actions (and inaction) would lead to.
The right man in the right place at the right time can change the world, but that ball keeps on bouncing.
The Good: The dialogue, the grand political intrigue, Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, the charm, the patriotism, the era.
The Bad: Occasionally inappropriate use of tone and the beginning could have been better.
The Hoffman: “I don’t see God anywhere within miles of this. On the other hand, if you slept with me tonight, I betcha I could change my mind in a hurry.”