A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: # 23


2007, R, 97 mins.


Charlie Wilson: Tom Hanks / Joanne Herring: Julia Roberts / Gust Avrakotos: Philip Seymour Hoffman / Bonnie: Amy Adams / Jane Liddle: Emily Blunt / Doc Long: Ned Beatty / Cravely: John Slattery / Harold Holt: Denis O'Hare

Drected by Mike Nichols / Written by Aaron Sorkin / Based on the book Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History by George Crile

Mike Nicholsí CHARLIE WILSONíS WAR is a political comedy, but there is always an uneasy undercurrent of dread and foreboding doom to the proceedings.  At face value, it tells the story of how one Congressman was able to fund a secret CIA black operation - the largest of its kind on US history - which funded the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  On a whole other subtle and discrete level, CHARLIE WILSONíS WAR largely deals with how governmental officials failed to engage in a proper "clean-up" of the country after the war, which inevitably lead to dire consequences...which we all are abundantly aware of today.

There is a very key moment in the film that highlights this.  In the aftermath of victory a CIA officer, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells Wilson (Tom Hanks) that unless there is a serious effort to help Afghanistan rebuild back into a strong and stable society, there could be dire and horrible repercussions for the US.  After he tells Wilson of his concerns Nichols drowns out the background noise, holds a shot on the worried face of Wilson, and focuses on the sound of a planeís jet engine in the background coming in for a landing.

The subliminal reference here is, of course, the tragedy of 9/11.  While watching the extraordinary "true" events of the film occur, itís really difficult to not follow them through forward in time to that fateful day in September of 2001.  CHARLIE WILSONíS WAR has not really been labeled as a 9/11film, but it certainly is a pre-9/11 film in the way it looks at the pre-Taliban era and how US efforts - strongly endorsed by the work of Wilson - led to the country defeating the Soviet Empire and then, as a result, ironically lead to the destabilization of the country.  If you put two and two together, itís not hard to see this story through to the present day.

However impossible to watch this film without thinking of a natural line to future terrorists attacks, CHARLIE WILSONíS WAR is not particularly interested in the whyís and howís of 9/11 (those aspects remain as fringe elements).  The Taliban is never once mentioned, nor is there any real effort to deal with the failed rebuilding period after the Afghan War to pull the country on the right path.  No, Nicholsí film is more fascinated with the unbelievable story of how a middle-aged Texas Democratic Representative that was a boozer, womanizer, cocaine user, and morally questionable man was able to fly in under the radar, without anyone knowing, and raised military aid to the Afghans from $5 million to a billion dollars in a few short years and basically single-handedly lead to the end of the Cold War.

The film - directed with consummate precision by Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin (of TVís the WEST WING and recently of the short-lived - but brilliantly written - STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP) dives into this seemingly outlandish story with a headstrong passion and energy for the material.  Based on the 2003 book of the same name by Charles Crile III, itís clear that the film certainly has taken some dramatic liberties with the real life source material (it has been reported that Sorkin dialed downed and eased up in his portrait of Wilson to make him a more flattering figure to movie goers).  No matter, because the essence of this manís incredible journey is captured here so effortlessly, and it is assisted by a screenplay by Sorkin that drips with sardonic wit, some of the freshest and most lively dialogue of the year and by the strong performances by some of the leads.

As the film opens we meet Rep. Wilson as a Democratic Congressman from Texasís second district.  The opening scenes show him not in his office, but in a hot tub drinking wine with two Playboy playmates at his side.  Charlie certainly lives the life of a party and his fondness for loose woman and alcohol has no limits.  While at the party he notices an interesting report on the news from Dan Rather about the plight of the Afghan people fighting a war against the Russians.  After being named to the Defense Appropriations subcommittee in 1980, he reads an Associated Press dispatch on the alarming number of refugees that were fleeing Afghanistan.

This got him thinking.  He then looked into the US budget to aid the Afghanis in their plight: a paltry $5 million, barely enough to help fight off viscous attacks from Russian tanks and helicopters.  This does not sit well with him and he discusses maters more with a right-wing Houston millionaire socialite named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, acting being layers of makeup, and maybe some Botox injections). She hates Russians as much as any other Cold War era American, and she is able to easily sense that the key to assisting Afghanistan is to shoot helicopters down....at least at a starting point.  But the key is money.

Both Wilson and Herring realize that $5 million just ainít gonna be enough for this type of aid.  With Herringís connections to political figures in Pakistan, Charlie decides to see the Military dictator of Pakistan, General Zia, in hopes of setting up some aid for the Afghans.  Zia assists Charlie greatly by first taking him on a heartbreaking tour of the refugee camps, with displaced families, maimed children, and all kinds of human suffering.

This is the straw that broke the camelís back for Wilson.  More determined than ever, Charlie goes back to the US with a newfound vigor to get the aid money however he can.  The problem is that, oddly enough, the US canít afford to have their own weapons be "seen" in the hands of the Afghans.  Charlie then hatches an ingenious scheme: With the assistance of a CIA covert man, Gust Avrakotos, Wilson decides not to supply the Afghans with US weapons, but will get shoulder mounted, Soviet made anti-aircraft weapons from Israel and will funnel them to Afghanistan via Pakistan.  Yes...thatís right...the US, Pakistan, and Israel would all get be in bed together in one of the biggest black ops in history...all arranged one night at a bar with a belly-dancer.

The astonishing then happens.  Through Charlie and Gustís work, they are able to secretly up the funding from $5 million to $40 million in 1983.  A year later he would get $50 million more.  Eventually Charlie was able to secure $300 million of unused Pentagon Funds into the Afghan operation.  By the time the war ended in the late 80's the number approached the billions of dollars.  Within a ten year period between $3 and 20 billion was funneled into the country to train and equip freedom fighters in the art of killing the "infidels" the were the Russians.

Whatís kind of miraculous about CHARLIE WILSONíS WAR is - if you overlook the filmís somber and sober themes - that itís remarkably droll.  Nichols never oversells the comedy of the film, but instead lets the actors play things on a low key approach, which is greatly assisted by Sorkinís wonderfully realized dialogue and exchanges.  Just look at the one scene where Gust has his first meeting with Charlie, only to be interrupted and asked to leave every few seconds.  The timing of every movement and line of dialogue is delivered here with perfect precision.  Charlie also has many engaging and funny moments trying to woe various leaders from Israel and Pakistan into his cause.  When he mistakenly asks for a drink from the Pakistani leader in his presidential palace (a big no-no), he tries to smooth over his misstep by asking the General, "I bet a lot of first timers make that mistake here," to which he dryly responds, in the filmís best time line, "No."

There are other nice little touches. Look at the scene with the belly dancer where Charlie works like a commission salesman on speed in attempt to get Pakistan and Israel to overcome their differences and work in unison (Nichols even makes one very modest wink and nudge to a very famous shot from his own THE GRADUATE here).  I also liked Wilsonís personal army of busty and curvaceous young secretaries (they look like cover models, and lesser screenplays would have made them bimbos, but they are cunning, quick witted, and smart: they know how to handled their boss).  And then there is just about every moment with the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who punctuates line after line with a hilarious understatement of bitterness and mean-spiritedness.  Gust is a crude figure (with his thick glasses, bushy mustache, and prediction to drop f-bombs left and right), but he overcomes his questionable facade by being the ultimate go-to straight talking man.  Hoffman hits every right beat here.

Then, of course, there is Hanks, who has the trickiest performance of the film in the sense that he has to play an ethically questionable lout (at first) that develops into a real determined - and somewhat commendable - man of action later.  Hanks has always had an on-screen personality that seems inviting and trustworthy, so his casting here is absolutely crucial: he infuses in this dubious man a sense of purpose, which helps elevate the Wilson character into a layered and complex persona.  Perhaps his finest moment in the film shows Charlie - near the end of the film - receiving a major commendation for his support of the US clandestine services and his efforts to back the Afghans.  Look at the way Hanks quietly plays this manís pride, integrity, and subdued, introverted fear for the future.  He is proud of his accomplishment, but with the thought of little, if any, assistance by the US in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, his feelings of celebration are overwhelmed by a sense of trepidation for the future.  Surely, he was right to be worried.

Considering the powerhouse writing, direction, and two lead performances, my only real misgiving about the film is with Robertsí performance as Herring, who never seems to channel or really inhabit this character: More often that not, you get the impression of a famous movie star playing dress up more than one fully immersing herself in a part. As a result, Roberts distracts more than she involves us.  Thankfully, most of the other supporting cast is fine.  Amy Adams has a real spunk and sass appeal as Wilsonís aid and Ned Beatty has one of the most cryptic and eerie moments in the film as the Chairman of the Appropriations Sub-committee that visits the Afghan refugee camps and urges the crowd to continue their holy war against Communist aggression.  Then there is Emily Blunt, who has a very brief, but very, very memorable and satisfying, cameo.

Itís startling the kind of theatrical and aesthetic ground that this film takes.  CHARLIE WILSONíS WAR is a political satire, a side-splitting comedy, a modest biopic, and a cautionary tale all rolled into one.  Hanks and Hoffman are solid at every turn here, Sorkin shows how gifted he is at dialogue that is rife with fluidity and colorful language, and the wise olí veteran Mike Nichols - now 76-years old - is obviously crafty and smart enough to know his way around this dicey material.  What were are left with is something of an odd conglomeration in CHARLIE WILSONíS WAR: Itís intrinsically fascinating, frequently hilarious, but also kind of haunting and tragic with the way it makes viewers create mental bridges between itís story and our current war on terror.  Only a real seasoned filmmaker could have pulled this off so effectively.

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