Charlie Wilson’s War
Starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts
Directed by Mike Nichols
Here’s something I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever say.
Aaron Sorkin needed to write more.
For the film adaptation of George Crile’s fascinating non-fiction book Charlie Wilson’s War, director Mike Nichols recruited a guy in Sorkin who seems to know a few things about documenting the political milieu.
But the creator of The West Wing — as well as the late, lamented SportsNight — has never been a man of few words. While his densely verbose scripts are often smart and punchy, the fear was that he’d get so chatty that he wouldn’t be able to trim down the sprawling narrative to a manageable size. Instead, he improbably did exactly the opposite.
Charlie Wilson’s War is beefy real-world politics stripped down to skin and bones.
The Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) of the title is a Texas congressman whose great pleasures in life are drinking, women, and serving America — roughly in that order. But in 1980 his interest is piqued by a news report on the beleaguered Afghan rebels fighting against the invading Soviet army. Spurred to action by a wealthy donor, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Wilson begins investigating how to increase aid to Afghanistan. And once he’s able to use his pull to get the money flowing, all it takes is the know-how of CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to launch the most massive covert operation in American military history.
The details of that operation are mind-blowing, but Nichols and Sorkin understand that an audience isn’t likely to sit still for debates over secretly acquiring rocket launchers. They focus instead on the compelling character that is Wilson, a libertine whose openness about his character flaws seems incomprehensible only a generation later. But while Hanks seems to be enjoying the rare opportunity to play someone who’s not Jimmy Stewart, the script never really explores the rabid anti-Communism that drove Wilson’s efforts. We get to see him on an eye-opening trip to a refugee camp, but purely humanitarian zeal never fully explains the mission that defined his legacy.
The filmmakers are more successful in dealing with Avrakotos, which is largely because Sorkin can use him to unleash his saltiest bon mots. Hoffman, predictably, knocks another characterization out of the park, seething with the resentment of a coarse, street-smart guy who can’t get a career break in the white-collar intelligence community.
Every one of the best scenes involves Avrakotos’ no-nonsense style — an unapologetic tongue-lashing of his boss, a visit to Wilson’s office that’s repeatedly interrupted by a breaking scandal. You come to Sorkin for memorable dialogue, and that’s what he delivers.
What he doesn’t deliver is a real sense of the story’s geopolitical scope. Nichols manages to find time to dwell on a scene of Roberts’ Texas socialite using a safety pin to separate her heavily-mascaraed lashes, and an almost slapstick sequence of mujahideen shooting down their first Soviet airships.
But the film seems almost too desperate to keep the tale light and lively, virtually ignoring the legalities of Wilson’s machinations in an effort to make him sort of a tragic hero. As the plot follows Wilson on his globe-hopping construction of an improbable coalition, Charlie Wilson’s War ultimately becomes a story of unintended consequences, but the foreshadowing of the post-Cold War dangers to come feels almost offhand.
Turning this story into what is essentially a comedy was a bold choice — and, at least artistically, not a particularly wise one.
Of course, it’s likely that audiences will embrace Sorkin’s brand of breezy poli-sci more than they have dour stuff like Rendition and Lions for Lambs that describes foreign-policy blunderings with a shake of the head rather than a wry smile.
But Charlie Wilson’s War feels so stripped down at 100 minutes that its underlying ideas come off as tacked-on afterthoughts. I never expected Sorkin, of all people, to be the one replacing awards-season epic bloat with textual malnourishment.