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Awesome: 18.18%
Worth A Look61.82%
Average: 1.82%
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Total Crap: 3.64%

6 reviews, 19 user ratings

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Charlie Wilson's War
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by Erik Childress

"Finally A War We Can All Get Behind"
4 stars

You never know how far you can trust true stories about war and politicians. Every political bone in your body naturally screams cynicism and the slightest disagreement with its strategy swells the balloon of propaganda in your mind. Rarely will the primary color un-blind find an area of green to swim in together, particularly in the last two administrations defined by the appetites for sex and war. Take the story of one Charlie Wilson though, a name that is all-American yet few Americans probably recognize it. He was a congressman from a state you don’t mess with, wasn’t known for much aside from constantly being reelected and loved his booze, his women and helping his constituents when he could. He also happened to be an intrical part in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. While everyone in the ‘80s would like to take credit for ending the Cold War (Lord knows Reagan gets his fair share from supporters), it’s probably unfair to anoint a single man as the world’s savior. But Mike Nichols’ new film based on the book by late 60 Minutes journalist, George Crile, does quite a good job at serving some credit to Wilson for his efforts if not for all of his results. You may find better films that deal with the precursors of our present blowback in the Middle East, but you won’t find many more entertaining.

Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson whom we open on in sin city itself enjoying the company of strippers, Playboy cover girls and TV producers in 1980. Alcohol, cocaine and boobs all present and yet Charlie can’t help but notice Dan Rather on location in Afghanistan. Back home in an office populated by beautiful young assistants, including his third hand, Bonnie (Amy Adams), Charlie sees further reports coming over the teletype of Afghani refugees fleeing and gets a call from Texas socialite and part-time lover, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) for help in joining her cause to bring support to the rebels. She even has the influence to arrange a meeting with the Pakistani President (Om Puri). After suffering the shame of our lack of involvement in the area (which includes providing substandard weaponry and aircraft that are less than fully loaded) Wilson visits the refugee camps and has the moment of clarity that comes when seeing the severed limbs of children.

Realizing that upping the operations budget from five to ten million is more insulting than helpful, he enlists a less-than-enthusiastic CIA to brief him. Luckily enough he is sent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, guaranteed a nomination here), a gruff but astutely dedicated spy who has the know-how but not the resources to solve the current situation. It all comes down to taking down the Russian air support and it’s up to this trio of triangular intelligence to broker a deal between religious factions that hate each other while keeping the U.S.’ involvement on the downlow. Once word gets out that a mujahideen had his cold dead fingers pried away from a spankin’ new piece of American hardware, a war can go from metaphor to worldly at the pull of a trigger.

Weapons deals and international relations hardly seem a blithe evening out at the movies, but Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin recognize the utter illogicality of this story and have fashioned it as more of a biting Capraesque satire. Sorkin’s creation of the long running The West Wing nothwithstanding, but its his script for Rob Reiner’s The American President that has remained the least appreciated on a resume full of cred that is nevertheless thumbed at for its occasional self-awareness of being smarter than anyone perusing it. It’s a trait I’ve never minded in his work right through the solo season of TV’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but its not one that is abundantly evident in Charlie Wilson’s War. The subject matter may be above all of our understanding and as complex as it’s presented it clearly can never compare to the density of the real-life events. Still there’s no room for condescension here as the film breezes along through a nicely truncated 97 minutes of great actors working with “A” material.

Hanks, having missed out on playing the Clintonesque figure at the center of Nichols’ Primary Colors, makes up for it in spades in playing a character of similar vices and compassionate values. You could almost switch Hanks’ Wilson with Travolta’s Jack Stanton and not break stride in either story. Long considered the Jimmy Stewart of his time, it’s fitting that he’s finally found a Washingtonian role worthy of classical stature. Matching Hanks in that stride and in most opportunities outpacing him is the treasure-worthy presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Helped by Sorkin writing the hell of this character, but Hoffman’s performance is more than just dry delivery and one money line after another. Gust is a journeyman, fed up (as witnessed in his dynamite opener) at his superiors handling his own career as poorly as international relations, but more than just the shlub suggested at his low beltline and protruding gut which he speaks from freely. Their first meeting, a juggling act of solving the Afghan issue and the looming irony-laden investigation of Wilson by a one-time U.S. attorney and current Presidential candidate, is a little masterstroke of comic direction, writing and acting. Hoffman sells Gust to us as a guy who knows all the angles, equally matter-of-fact and pragmatic enough to deliver the old story about the Zen Master we’ve all heard in some form or another without it feeling forced or Sorkin-esque.

Where the script does cheat itself is in the handling of Roberts’ real-life socialite. A god-lovin’, Commie-hating conservative with money and influence (who was in her early-50s at event’s unfolding), there’s more convolution than meets the eye in the film and her Joanne unfortunately is too underwritten, particularly when standing in a room with Hanks and Hoffman, each character richer than the next with two pros making them even larger than life. Roberts is more third-bill than third-wheel but her scenes are defined a little too broadly to effectively grasp her as a human being rather than just another necessary cog. One minute its her love of God. Another her uncouthness in diplomatic speechifying. Joanne is meant to be more than just a wrinkle in Charlie’s conscience, but a part that he comes to love as more than just a casual dalliance. There’s an unseemly moment late in the film where a phone conversation between the two leaves tears in Charlie’s eyes. But when Charlie is seen again fifteen minutes later in the same chair, in the same clothes with the same drink, are we seeing Nichols’ attempt at narrative projection or the result of an editor needing a shot to bridge the next scene? This phone call actually makes more sense if placed at that second moment so one is left with the feeling that Nichols just moved it up in the rotation at an obvious disservice to the progression of their relationship and the narrative.

It’s as rare a misstep as you’re likely to see during Charlie Wilson’s War unless your politics are too clouded to equally laugh and appreciate someone on the other side. No one should go far enough to evoke the name of Oskar Schindler, although their arcs are unavoidable. Charlie is more idealistic the more we get to know him from his handling of a Nativity controversy to a wonderful speech Sorkin writes about his first taste for politics. Wilson makes for an interesting contrast to Tom Cruise’s warmongering senator in Robert Redford’s muckraking Lions for Lambs as two men with the power to make what they believe is right come to fruition but without the foresight of its immediate and long term consequences. Those believing the film won’t tie in the current state of affairs are probably deluding themselves, but shouldn’t be angered at bringing in the context of the old adage of “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That may not have been said by a Zen master, but we’ll see if anyone remembers that once they’re done laughing.

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originally posted: 12/21/07 16:00:00
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User Comments

12/06/14 Richard Brandt Moral: Those who flunk history are doomed to repeat it. 4 stars
6/01/10 User Name One of the best of '08. 4 stars
2/27/10 Phil M. Aficiando Outstanding history, entertainment, humor, characters, and acting 5 stars
4/16/09 Potential Interesting, well made, well acted, reap what you sow 4 stars
3/31/09 MP Bartley Entertaining, if superficial. Hoffman is wonderful. 4 stars
11/23/08 CTT Nicely done, but what's the rush? 4 stars
9/04/08 Rachel Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman deliver the goods as usual. 5 stars
8/28/08 Shaun Wallner Interesting storyline. 4 stars
7/03/08 R.W. Welch Playboy congressman changes history. Almost surreal but pretty much true. 4 stars
6/15/08 Sam just ok .. hardly thought provoking .. documenting the involvement of CW in that war.. 2 stars
5/06/08 Random Where's the review for Woodrow Wilson's War? Now THAT was a war!!! 4 stars
5/05/08 Judy Sanders Perfect & Satisfying 5 stars
4/06/08 Jessica Bielzebub What keeps two heat-seeking missiles, fired side-by-side, from seeking each other? 3 stars
3/17/08 Natasha McVandervere Oh, how nice to know that Julia Roberts fucked Tom Hanks to help create the taliban! 2 stars
1/30/08 opossum acres a good film 4 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic For a satire to bite someone has to draw blood 1 stars
12/23/07 ceredo Go see tihis !! 5 stars
12/22/07 D More revisionist leftism from irrelevant hollywood 1 stars
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  21-Dec-2007 (R)
  DVD: 22-Apr-2008



Directed by
  Mike Nichols

Written by
  Aaron Sorkin

  Tom Hanks
  Julia Roberts
  Phillip Seymour Hoffman
  Amy Adams
  Om Puri
  Jud Tylor

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