Charlie Wilson’s War: Mike Nichols’s Shallow Film, Starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts

In theory, Mike Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War” has all the ingredients of a smart, poignant, and entertaining political satire about American politics and Afghanistan: a shrewd text by savvy writer Aaron Sorkin, a trio of colorful characters, played by an all-name cast, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (all Oscar winners!), a timely subject that has not been dealt with by Hollywood in a comic-ironic mode, and a sophisticated New York director who admires language, character, and actors, as evident in his four-decade career, from “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” all to the way to “Closer.”

In practice, however, new movie leaves much to be desired. While the pace is brisk and running time brief (about 98 minutes), Sorkin’s script is shallow and too narrowly focused, failing to make significant links to the broader political context, both American and global, in this crucial era. And while Hoffman shines and steals every scene he is in (no matter who his partners are) and Julia Roberts looks right and sounds right, Tom Hanks might not have been the perfect actor to play the good ol’ American politician from Texas, a smooth talker who swayed opinions and changed crucial decisions and budgets with his easy, abundant charisma, a quality that proved effective in dealing with hookers, socialites, American politicos-and rigid Muslim and Israeli leaders!

End result is a fresh, sophisticated satire on an inflammatory topic that stands out in the current landscapes of gloom and doom American war movies, none of which particularly good artisticallyor commercially successful, for that matter. Mature audiences that embraced Nichols’ previous films, specifically “Closer,” also with Julia Roberts, and “Primary Colors,” should enjoy “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but I doubt if very young viewers would rush to see fare that’s at once too theatrical (one-liners that would please Noel Coward) and TV-like in its glitzy surfaces.

Nichols has said that he has “a lot of difficulty following movies that even touch on wars,” which might have led to his decision to steer clear of political allegorydespite the similarities of his movie’s historical political context (story is set in the 1980s) to today’s headline news and the continuing wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this, and other respects, “Charlie Wilson’s War” suffers from the same problems of Nichols’ former political satires, “Primary Colors” and back in the 1970s “Catch 22.” The light approach to serious matters (and real-life figures) brings out the irony and absurdities of the situations, but it also runs the risk of trivializing them–perhaps unintentionally.

An astute political observer, Sorkin knows the political and play scene in Washington DC inside out, and here, as in his TV work, he takes an approach that could be described as a cross between “Dallas” or “Dynasty” with a touch of bright and snappy TV shows like “The West Wing.” The above description is not as far out as it might seem: Early on, Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is talked into investing in a TV show that’s described like “Dallas in Washington.”

For this picture, Sorkin has adapted the 2003 best-seller of the same title by the late “60 Minutes” journalist George Crile whose non-fictional book details the outrageous, sensationalistic escapades of a coalition of unlikely trio that helped bring down the Communist rule of Afghanistan through social, political, and military connections–and inadvertently led to the rise of a new anti-American regime.

The crux of the story, which didn’t get much coverage at the good ol’ Reagan times, is so bizarre and logic-defying that if it were not billed as factual, you would think it was made up in a Hollywood conference room! In essence, under the inspiration of Charlie, the threesome conspired and mobilized all of their personal connections and political resources to generate covert financial and weaponry support for the Afghan Mujahideen to defeat the Russians in the late 1980s. What begins as a miniscule budget of $5 million to help a remote country (Afghanistan) most American politicians often confuse with Pakistan (out of ignorance and/or lack of care of attention) ends up in the neighborhood of $1 billion and a campaign that benefits from the participation of such unlikely partners as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel!

How did it happen

When first introduced, Charlie Wilson is in a Las Vegas spa, schmoozing, boozing, and snorting with three hookers/strippers and one guy. A Democratic congressman from East Texas, he’s known as “Good Time Charlie” for his swinging lifestyle; there’s always a girl, or rather girls, around him, at the office or in his suite. Yet Nichols and Sorkin alert us from the very first scene that Charlie may be a fun boy, but he is not stupid or irresponsible, and he’s certainly not ignorant or impervious to foreign affairs. While playing in the hot tub, the TV screen shows a report of Afghanistan, which Charlie absorbs, immediately noticing and questioning why anchorman Dan Rather is not shaven. Moments later, in a limo, Charlie cheerfully orchestrates group snorting, activity that later puts him under scrutiny and federal investigation by no other than Rudolph Giuliani, in his pre-celeb state.

An eligible bachelor, Charlie is surrounded by the most beautiful secretaries in Washington DC, four of them to be exact, led by Bonnie Bach (Amy Adams), his smart red-haired administrative assistant. His office is so pleasing to the eyes of men that when they visit, they don’t mind waiting for him.

Deep down, However, Charlie is a modernist reincarnation of a classic Frank Capra hero, a good, decent American boy whose heart and mind are almost always in the right placethis saga could be called “Mr. Wilson Goes to Afghanistan.” Yet unlike Capra’s heroes, Charlie is not a nave man who needs to sober or mature by a wake-up call, not even when the story begins. While highly aware of his faults and shortcomings, he also recognizes his skills and talents in getting things done, which he accomplishes with easy charm and lots of talk.

On a typical evening, about to have sex with “the girl de soir,” Charlie gets a call from Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, sporting a blond wig and long elegant dresses), a Houston socialite and former lover with (invisible) power and connections to all the right places, who invites him to her estate. Casual flirtation leads to sex (unseen in the film), after which Joanne places the exhausted lover in a hot tub, while arousing his political passion by pleading for help in a “little cause” Congress is not particularly interested in: Getting rid of the vicious invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, thus helping to terminate the hateful Cold War. From that point on, the phrase, “I want to kill as many Russkies as you,” becomes the film’s dominant motif, and the one idea/feeling that unifies its otherwise vastly disparate characters.

In quick order, Joanne arranges for Charlie to meet Pakistan’s President Zia ul-Haq (vet actor Om Puri) in Islamabad. Encounter doesn’t begin well, due to Charlie’s request, even before the talks commence, for a whiskey from his fundamentalist Muslim host. Reproached by Zia for his misconduct, Charlie later whispers to assistant Bonnie, “I’ve just been told I had character flaws by a man who hung his predecessor in a military coup.”

Turning point occurs when Charlie and Bonnie visit an Afghan refugee camp, where they interview starving men, women who lost children, children who lost legs, witnessing the kind of misery and starvation never before experienced by them. These and later scenes highlight the contrasts–the great divide–between bourgeois American politicos, well-dressed, groomed and sporting sun glasses, and citizens of the Third World.

Upon his return, Charlie is able to increase his government’s secret funding of the anti-Soviet jihad from $5 million to $10 million, then to $70 million, half a billion, and eventually $1 billion. Nichols and Sorkin are good in detailing the initial work involved, but later on, they skip many of the necessary steps, which accounts for one of the film’s major shortcomings: A lot is implied or suggested, but not shown. Except for one scene, we never get to see how American committees actually work–or don’t work.

As the main goal is getting the Afghan rebels weapons to shoot down Russian helicopters, Charlie is introduced to rogue CIA officer Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose presence brings energy and humor to the proceedings. A vet of 24 years of service, too coarse (he’s working class) to serve as diplomat to more desirable countries, Gust (He won’t let you forget the T in his name) has built enough anger and resentment to function as a rebellious officer, all too willingly joining forces with Charlie, and like the latter, is at first more concerned with bedding Joanne than doing “business” with her.

Knowing that Israel has a substantial supply of Soviet-made weapons, the alert and intelligent Gust arranges an unprecedented deal between Jewish leaders, Islamic Pakistani, and even Saudi Arabian chief to amass untraceable guns and weapons and smuggle them into Afghanistan. Like other wheeling and dealing, this one is accompanied by another allure, a side attraction in the form of a Texas belly dancer (Emily Blunt), who has always wanted to perform in Cairo.

The film’s last reel is disappointing for two reasons. It’s brief and it’s done in montage. When Stinger missiles finally find their way to the Afghan rebels, the tide turns. Through video footage and subtitles like, “August 1987, 43 Soviet planes downed,” we quickly go through the gradual defeat and ultimate Soviet retreat in 1989. Yet even here, the solid theatrical instincts of Nichols and Sorkin account for some entertaining if trivial notes: The Soviet pilots, like the American politics, also engage in small trivial chat about sex and monogamy, while being shut down by the rebels!

The framing device of setting the whole story as a flashback is too simplistic for this ironic saga, landing it an aura of somber sincerity that the rest of the movie lacks. The film begins and ends with a ceremony in which Charlie Wilson is honored in front of a huge American flag (a la “Patton”), while his comrades in arm, Joanne and Gust, are in the audience, saluting him.

There’s no epilogue, thematic link to the present, or even a single mention of Osama Bin Laden and the chilling note that Wilson’s very patriotic act of the 1980s also helped equipped what would become the most vicious enemy in US’s history, the Al Qaeda organization.

Even so, the closing title card is rather poignant, “Those things happened and they were glorious, and then we fucked up the end of the game,” since it comes right after a line that reminds us viewers that once a ball is set in motion, it continues to bounce even if we’ve lost interest in it.

Cast

Charlie Wilson – Tom Hanks
Joanne Herring – Julia Roberts
Gust Avrakotos – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Bonnie Bach – Amy Adams
Doc Long – Ned Beatty
Jane Liddle – Emily Blunt
President Zia – Om Puri
Zvi – Ken Stott
Cravely – John Slattery
Harold Holt – Denis O’Hare
Crystal Lee – Jud Tylor
Larry Liddle – Peter Gerety
Paul Brown – Brian Markinson
Mike Vickers – Christopher Denham
Belly Dancer – Tracy Phillips
Charlie’s Angels – Wynn Everett, Mary Bonner Baker, Rachel Nichols, Shiri Appleby

Credits

Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media and Participant Productions of a Playtone production.
Produced by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman.
Executive producers, Celia Costas, Ryan Kavanaugh, Jeff Skoll. Co-producer, Mike Haley. Directed by Mike Nichols.
Screenplay, Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile.
Camera: Stephen Goldblatt.
Editors: John Bloom, Antonia Van Drimmelen.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Production designer: Victor Kempster.
Supervising art directors: Bradford Ricker, Marco Trentini (Morocco); art director (Morocco), Maria Teresa Barbasso.
Set designer: Joshua Lusby.
Set decorator: Nancy Haigh.
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky.
Sound: Petur Hliddal.
Supervising sound editor: Ron Bochar.
Re-recording mixers, Lee Dichter, Bochar.
Visual effects supervisor: Richard Edlund.
Visual effects: Whodoo EFX, 4ward Prods.
Associate producers: Mary Bailey, Edward Hunt, Paul A. Levin.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 98 Minutes.