Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Charlie Wilson’s War is the film equivalent of an ice cold bucket of water poured over our collective heads. For those who believe the war in Iraq is no longer the most important issue in the upcoming Presidential election, I prescribe seeing this film twice. In fact it probably needs to be seen at least twice in order to fully grasp how smart and profound it really is. Writer Aaron Sorkin and Director Mike Nichols work with such ease and grace that we are blindsided by its full effect. After seeing the film it’s hard to believe that I hadn’t heard of Charlie Wilson, but I think he may have wanted it that way to begin with.
Tom Hanks plays Wilson, a U.S. Congressman from the Second Congressional district in Texas. He is shockingly a Democrat but that really doesn’t matter much here and the film has no issue whatsoever when it comes to the two political parties. One of the first scenes in the film has Wilson in a hot tub in a Las Vegas hotel suite, surrounded by strippers and people high on cocaine. Compared to what we hear about members of Congress these days, this scene doesn’t seem so bizarre. Wilson leaves Vegas in order to make it back to D.C. for a very important vote that has something to do with Congress and the Boy Scouts. Such is the life of a U.S. Congressman.
Once back in D.C. we see that his staff is made up of only good looking young women, in fact he calls one of them “jail bait.” He gets the usual visits from people in his district who have given him campaign contributions. One contributor is upset that a nativity scene is being forced from a location that it has been at for many years. “Just move it to one of the thirty eight churches in the district and everyone lives”, says Wilson. Charlie is a plain spoken guy and this has endeared him to as many people as it has alienated. He is on two committees, one of which decides which countries get money to help their causes. It’s in this capacity that a Houston socialite named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) needs his help with an issue that’s near and dear to her heart.
It’s the early 80s and the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan is getting bloodier with each passing day. Herring wants Charlie to get more money and the proper weapons to the Afghani people so that they can defend themselves from the Soviets; most importantly they need to be able to shoot down Soviet helicopters who have been killing women and children in Kabul. Herring is a Christian, so Charlie explains to her that he has been elected by Jews and they might not look kindly on him helping Arabs. “How many Jews are in your district?” she asks, “Seven”, Charlie responds “but I’m not elected by voters, I’m elected by contributors.” While Charlie is hesitant at first, a trip to an Afghan refugee camp where he sees the carnage and desperation that the war has caused propels him into action.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gust Avrakotos, a CIA agent who is fed up with his superiors’ lack of support and trust. He’s also a no-nonsense guy and doesn’t mind being totally crass if need be. Knowing a bit about the battles in the Middle East he finds himself involved in Charlie’s plight. It’s Charlie’s job to get the money to the right places and Gust’s job to get the weapons into the right hands. All of this happens in covert fashion as the highest officials in the government have little knowledge of what’s happening. However, with a little manipulation here and there, before you know it the money and arms are in the hands of the Mujahideen and they end up winning the war.
Charlie Wilson’s War is based on a book by 60 minutes correspondent George Crile and is adapted by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The American President) in such a crackerjack and swift ninety minutes that we barely have time to breathe between words. The dialogue is classic Sorkin in both its pacing and sarcastic edge. The exchanges between Hoffman and Hanks are particularly clever, “You don’t seem like a CIA operative, I mean you’re obviously no James Bond”, Wilson says, “Well you’re no Thomas Jefferson so I guess we’re even”, responds Avrakotos. Sorkin has the ability to be at once funny and smart with his words, a rare commodity in Hollywood.
While the means in which the three main characters get a whole war won without any real help from the military or the President may seem absurd, when you really think about it, it’s no more so than some of the dealings going on in D.C right now. Throw in an inept government, and it really doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. The film also throws in a couple of names that have played a major part in current politics, Rudy Giuliani and John Murtha. Giuliani as it turned out was the prosecutor who came close to nailing Wilson on ethics charges involving that night in Las Vegas. “Who’s the prosecutor?” Wilson asks his secretary, “Rudolph Giuliani, have you heard of him?” “No” he responds. Murtha has some ethics problems of his own but Wilson backed him, and so now Murtha will back Wilson when it comes to his issue in the Middle East. Such is how deals are done in Washington.
There is much humor in Charlie Wilson’s War and Hanks and Hoffman make Sorkin’s dialogue dance and bite. It’s a fast and entertaining ninety minutes but just when we have gotten caught up in the hoopla surrounding Wilson’s success, the film hits us with a swift jab that suddenly brings the story into the present and what is now taking place in Afghanistan. What to this point has played as a story of the past is suddenly more vital and important. It is so easy to get caught up in the short-term battle that sometimes the long-term one gets lost. There is no easy resolution at the end of the film, just the consequences and implications that we are now witnessing. Now that I think about it this is probably one of the more bittersweet endings in recent cinema. Nichols and Sorkin make us laugh then force us to think.