Charlie Wilson's War (2007) dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
"Charlie Wilson's War" follows in the tradition of such political films "Three Kings", "Bulworth", "The Right Stuff", "MASH" and Nichols' own "Catch-22" and "Primary Colors". "Charlie Wilson" mixes absurd black humour with its political agenda plot. Though the result is entertaining it unfortunately doesn't match these films. "Charlie Wilson" is hefty on dialogue and plot but light on drama, threat, and suspense.
The film is based on a true story of Charlie Wilson, a U.S. Senator whose vices include strippers, cocaine and other malevolent behaviour. He also gets shit done, and when he's exposed to the atrocities the Russians are committing against the Afghanis during 1979 invasion of their country Wilson decides to take action. With the help of eccentric socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (a boisterous ubermale performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman) Wilson launches a covert war against the Soviets. Hanks raises a billion dollars in funds and arms the Afghans with the most sophisticated weaponry to defeat the Russians.
The performances as expected are spot-on. Philip Seymour Hoffman got an Oscar nomination for his role as Avrakotos. It's a showy performance bordering on over-the-top. It's full of bravado and posturing, gutteral mumbling. Hanks is Hanks and though his character beds many women and dabbles in some blow, we never get to see him down and dirty on screen. Roberts' mere presence is enough to fulfil the eccentric character of Herring. Scotch also plays a central role in the film - it provides the actors' business in virtually every scene.
The bravado, the blow, the scotch. It certainly feels like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay - the dialogue constantly rides the edge of being intelligent and overwritten. At times the talk is sharp like daggers, but when you want the people to 'get to the point' it's word-soup. The most surprising omission in the film is drama. Wilson's mission to fund and coordinate the 'covert' war encounters few if any roadblocks. Sorkin places Hanks and Hoffman in various meetings and phone calls convincing people into giving their time and money to the effort. The biggest hurdle is getting the Israelis to work with the Pakistanis. But little drama or work appears to be involved other than a lengthy flight.
I appreciate Nichols' scant 1hr 42min running time, but a film like this, which takes place over 10 years, many countries and a complex number of characters, needs to top two-hours. Nichols and Sorkin cram in a lot of info and make massive leaps to go from A to B to C. It all make sense, and we're never confused, the film never feels like 10 years - 6 months at most. It's clear the filmmakers never wanted to lose the light tone and fast pace. But after a couple of scenes Sorkin's comic devices become predictable, and actually distracts from the focus of the film. Every serious scene is counterplayed with a comic subplot. For example, Wilson's first meeting with Avrakotos, when he briefs Wilson on the needs of the Afghani rebels is interrupted with his secretaries' spin control of Wilson's Las Vegas coke/strippers scandal. There's also Wilson's first meeting with the CIA arms expert, which is interupted with a game of chess the agent continues to play as the talks serious.
The humour doesn't really generate any laughs, but then again, it's not a gag film like "Dr. Strangelove". But there's just not enough action, or drama or humour to make the film as compelling as the story. It's a shame because the Afghanistan War was lengthy and highly influential on the world today. There's a scene at the end, which explains how an off-the-cuff decision saw the Americans abandon their mission and 'fuck up the end game', but this is the only moment which puts the film in its painfully ironic perspective.
Because of the filmmaking lustre attached to the film, "Charlie Wilson's War" needed to have the impact as say, "MASH" or "THREE KINGS". It's competant enough for other filmmakers to consider it a success, but with the track records behind it, it's a disappointment.
"Charlie Wilson's War" is available on DVD April 22 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.