Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin made two exceedingly smart choices in adapting George Crile’s book Charlie Wilson’s War. First, they consented to a brisk 95-minute running time, rather than fall prey to the ‘prestige’ mentality that can saddle such projects, and that bloats them out to beyond two hours. The other choice was leavening their material with a snappy, devil-may-care attitude — a sure-fire strategy to skim over their story’s weakest areas of story and character development.
Charlie Wilson’s War is entertaining, and that’s about the extent of it. Nichols and Sorkin’s end result is decidedly a gloss on Crile’s account of how the eponymous Texas congressman managed to supply military support to the Afghan Mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. While their movie mostly avoids the Hollywood trappings of political correctness and underdog sentimentality, it also doesn’t have the chutzpah of its own conniving characters to offer much in the way of an incisive interpretation of those events.
It’s during a Vegas hot-tub party when the womanizing hedonist Wilson learns of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on a TV broadcast. Wilson’s partying that night alongside strippers and lines of coke comes back to haunt him throughout the story ahead as his opponents attempt to use it to ruin him. Sorkin neatly cross-braids Wilson’s attempts to dodge the bullets of scandal with the main attraction: His lobbying on Capitol Hill to allocate funds providing covert military hardware support to the Mujahideen. But America can’t seem as if it’s waging a direct war with the Soviets, so Wilson must make arrangements to funnel Soviet weaponry confiscated by the Israelis via Pakistan and into Afghanistan. Perhaps more vehement than Wilson is Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a right-wing Texas socialite and Wilson’s casual lover, who never met a Communist she didn’t hate. And rounding out their team is CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose first name aptly describes his personality. Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos make a saucy, fast-talking trio of wheeler-dealers, each using their individual métiers to shore up what amounts to a muscular, billion-dollar arsenal with which to arm the anti-Soviet resistance.
As Congressman Wilson, Tom Hanks delivers a reliable seriocomic performance. He offsets Wilson’s good-old-boy persona with shades of compassion and shrewdness. But why exactly does Charlie Wilson, a Congressman deeply entrenched in district-minded politics, care so readily for the Afghan cause? It’s a question that Nichols and Sorkin don’t bother to ask or address; they elide the matter of what it was that pricked Wilson’s conscience (and sense of political will), and replace it with an intent directive to tell a giddy and outrageous tale.
With Wilson’s right hand man, Avrakotos, the question of motive is less nettlesome since the CIA operative acts throughout in the line of duty. That aside, Hoffman’s performance is also the juiciest, and pure fun to watch as it verges into broad farce. Avrakotos may be an ingenious, no-nonsense professional, but the sight of him swaggering about, wearing large spectacles, and tucked into a suit a size too small recalls Chris Farley’s blowhard motivational speaker who lived in a van ‘down by the river,’ from SNL. In her bouffant and pearls, Roberts offers no surprises as Herring; her performance is just a variation on all the Southern belles she’s played before, by turns acerbic, warm-hearted, and appealing.
On the plus side, Sorkin’s script and Nichols’ approach to the material is oriented towards charm and laughs, and, as such, it never becomes tedious with self-importance. While Charlie Wilson’s War never risks the stonier byways into enriching Wilson’s characterization and deepening character relationships, and takes easy jabs at historical ironies and sexing up its subject matter, it does so with a sense of mischief and mirth. Sometimes, you appreciate a movie that opts for the modest road, and whose mechanics are as well-oiled as this one’s.
The DVD includes two making-of featurettes, including interviews with the real Charlie Wilson.
It’s a war on dry skin!