Mark Reviews Movies

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ned Beatty, Om Puri

MPAA Rating: R (for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 12/21/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I have a hard time imagining this isn't what politics is like inside the Beltway.  Backdoor dealings for astronomical sums of money.  Bait and switch tactics to lure the press away from the real news of what's actually happening to reports that are more sensationalistic.  Parties and fundraisers that appear straightforward but that in fact have motives far deeper behind them.  And, of course, coming up with a fantastic plan but forgetting to consider what to do after the plan has been implemented and accomplished.

It would be easy—too easy—to call Charlie Wilson's War a satire in the vein of Wag the Dog, but this is not a plausible flight of fanciful political dealings.  Charles Wilson, US Congressmen from Texas for 23 years, existed, managed to appropriate almost $1 billion to covert ops, and helped the CIA get weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.  His story was recorded in George Crile's 2004 book, and as a film, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols, it is detailed about political maneuvering in Washington, DC, and reminds us how eager our government is to aid the enemy of our enemy—just short of treating them as an ally, of course.

In 1980, Wilson (Tom Hanks) is at a party in Las Vegas with lots of alcohol, strippers, and cocaine, and a television producer who wants to make a show that's like "Dallas" but set in DC.  He has a vote to take in Congress the next day, he laments to the strippers, and before the vote, he reads on the news wire about refugees fleeing Afghanistan.  This strikes the congressman, who has an office full of pretty women, including his assistant Bonnie (Amy Adams) (His philosophy: "You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits.").

As a member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, he makes a call to increase CIA funding for Afghanistan from $5 million to $10 million, after he deals with a Texas local who argues about the need for a nativity scene at a fire station and continues his affair with the man's daughter.  Meanwhile, CIA officer Gust (not a typo) Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) really wants to fight the Soviets, but he has a bad temper (He breaks his boss' office window on two separate occasions).  While "in the weeds," Gust hears about Wilson's funding and decides to pay the congressman a visit.

Wilson has been doing his own research on the behest of Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), whom Wilson says is the fourth wealthiest woman in Texas.  Her motivations are primarily religious—wanting to put the fear of God in the godless Communists—but her connections are impeccable.  She manages to arrange a meeting with President Zia (Om Puri) of Pakistan (When Joanne introduces the president at a fundraiser, she starts by saying he did not kill his predecessor), who in turn convinces Wilson to visit an Afghan refugee camp on his border.

That scene is slightly out of tone with the freewheeling look at politics the film has established, but it's also necessary to give Wilson (and us) a look at the human toll of the Soviet invasion—a reason to care.  The film takes its time establishing Wilson's quirks as a casual alcoholic, an unapologetic womanizer, and a smart man with a laidback charm that makes his ambitious leanings all the more successful.  A man like that must have a big heart, and Tom Hanks imbues the role with a necessary level of sympathy.  On the other hand, there's Gust, a foul-mouthed schemer whose intentions are never clear, and Philip Seymour Hoffman has a blast with the role.

What ensues from Wilson, Gust, and Joanne's determination to help the mujahideen vanquish and embarrass the Soviet Army is astonishingly, truly ridiculous—so much so that it has to be true.  Gust introduces him to the CIA's arms expert, a nerdy kid name Vickers (Christopher Denham), who plays multiple games of chess in the park while apparently on duty.  Wilson has to convince the Defense Minister of Israel to arm Muslim freedom fighters, so he distracts the minister with a belly dancer and talks to his assistant.

He takes Doc Long (Ned Beatty), the head of the Congressional Appropriations Committee, to the refugee camp, and in a scene of eerie, frightening irony, Long tells the refugees this is a fight of good vs. evil.  "America is always on the side of good," Long says before chanting along with the refugees "Allahu Akbar."  Sorkin's script is a lean and tight insider's look at the absurdity, deceit, and artifice of politics, but in its final act, the film takes a dramatic shift in tone, following the highlights of Afghanistan's victory over the Soviets and Wilson's efforts to continue the United States' involvement in the country to aid with reconstruction.

The quote from real Wilson at the end of Charlie Wilson's War instantly brings us back to our present day quagmire in the Middle East.  It's more than just that, though.  As he sadly responds to the assertion of the chair of the committee—the one that was so gung-ho about providing $500 million in weapons to the country—that helping to rebuild schools in Afghanistan for $1 million isn't their problem: "That's what we always do."

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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