In the early 80s, Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) organised, with the help of a socialite (Roberts) and a CIA loose cannon (Hoffman), the covert US support of Afghani rebels fighting against the Soviets...
Charlie Wilson’s War stands a better chance of success than any of the ‘current climate’ movies so far. Why? Well, unlike, say, Lions For Lambs, it’s a film in which its stars get to twinkle and, while it’s undoubtedly a politically-motivated film that compares America’s attitude towards Afghanistan during the Cold War to today’s snafu in Iraq, there’s not a soapbox in sight.
When we first meet Wilson, he’s naked in a hot tub with some Vegas strippers, a JD and Coke, and actual coke. Of course, this is how we imagine all politicians behave behind closed doors, but it’s still startling to see how openly debauched Wilson was. He’s a ladies’ man, a boozehound, human. But even while all this is happening, we glimpse the complexity that made Wilson an unlikely hero. The usual approach would be to have Wilson discover the error of his ways, before a big emotional moment when he realises the scope of the crisis in Afghanistan and, dammit, decides to do something about it! Real life, though, isn’t so conventional and so, in the opening scene, Wilson spies a news report about the Russian occupation from his perch in the hot tub, and is immediately inspired to act.
What follows is a breezy romp in which Wilson, with help from his lover Joanne Herring (Roberts), the sixth-richest woman in Texas, and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), uses all his political nous to boost the funding of Afghani rebels, all without the Americans or the Russians finding out. In scenes where Wilson tries to broker a truce between Israeli and Egyptian agents, most notably one involving a belly dancer, you are reminded that Nichols directed one of the best comedies about the absurdity of war: Catch-22.
But it’s during the sparkling exchanges between the leads that the movie takes off. Hanks infuses Wilson with a bounce and charm we haven’t seen from him in years, while Roberts brings a regal air to the underwritten Herring. Still, if Hoffman doesn’t get Oscar-nominated for his turn as the tactless but tuned-in yin to Wilson’s yang, then someone should start a sub-committee to investigate. From his intro, where he smashes his superior’s office window in a rage, everything Hoffman says and does is a perfectly modulated hoot.
Given the subject, darkness inevitably lurks beneath the larks, and it’s here that Nichols loses his grasp of the movie’s tone, from a disconcerting sequence showing Russian gunships strafing an Afghani village to some jarring shots of a red-eyed Wilson alone in his apartment, struggling with his demons. Cutting from these to light comedy is a struggle even for this master.
Only towards the very end, when Wilson runs aground in the face of American indifference to finishing what it started by stabilising Afghanistan politically and socially — a failure which may well have led to the growth of Islamic extremism in the Middle East — does the movie successfully cross the line from wry comedy to rueful drama. The last shot of Wilson, in particular, beautifully illustrates the sharp regret of a man who can see the future and doesn’t like it one little bit.
Extremely enjoyable. Although its a little tonally unsure, whenever Hanks and Hoffman are on screen, any misgivings are forgiven.