Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Premise: The true story of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) who orchestrated American military aid into Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and pushed the USSR towards collapse.
What Works: Charlie Wilson’s War is an extraordinarily well-assembled film. It uses a combination of news footage from the war and seamlessly combines it with re-creations of Soviet helicopter raids on Afghan villages. The film is also able to navigate a lot of very complicated political allegiances and procedures and present them to the audience in an easily understandable way. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, often known for heavy handed political messages in The West Wing and The American President, returns to a more subtle and thought provoking approach he took in A Few Good Men. The tone is appropriate and the picture is able to delve into ethics, both personal and national, and adequately explore those issues without bludgeoning the audience to death with its political agenda the way that Lions for Lambs did. Charlie Wilson’s War has some great performances by Tom Hanks as Congressman Wilson, Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, and Julia Roberts as Texas millionaires Joanne Herring. Of the three, Hoffman is the one most interesting to watch as his character realizes the implications of his country’s intervention in Afghanistan and his blue collar sensibilities contrast with the wealthy Washington upper class that he rubs shoulders with. Julia Roberts is not given as much latitude in her role but for an actress who carries a lot of noise with her on-screen presence, she is able to neutralize it by abandoning her Pretty Woman image and Charlie Wilson’s War is one of the few films in which Roberts truly sells the character that she plays.
What Doesn’t: Charlie Wilson’s War’s brilliant construction stumbles at the very end. The picture simply stops too soon and misses a major opportunity to show the fallout of the post-war period. Although the story has a self-contained rise and fall built on the Afghan’s conflict with the Soviets, the film then pauses, in a scene acted brilliantly by Hoffman and Hanks, to establish that post-war Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction. This sets up a whole new conflict and the film seems posited to leap into a thicker and more textured conflict, but then it bails after a few short scenes that make the point, but in a truncated and far less satisfying way.
Bottom Line: Charlie Wilson’s War is a terrific film and one of the best post-September 11th films yet made, especially in a year that has seen so many movies attempting to deal with related subjects. Unlike the more disastrous attempts like Lions for Lambs or Redacted, Charlie Wilson’s War engages the audience by raising questions about our recent past and uses those questions to make us look at our present and our future.
Episode: #172 (December 30, 2007)