Saturday, April 26, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty, Emily Blunt

Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: R

** ½ (out of ****)

A while back I was having a conversation with someone who told me they were “getting sick” of Tom Hanks. I found this funny because in appearing in no more than a film or two a year he’s far from being overexposed. Yet, I knew what they meant. Those one or two films always seem to coincidentally come out around Oscar season and have been diminishing steadily in quality for about the past five years. So while we haven’t seen a lot of Hanks, it seems like we have because his few appearances have been mostly unwanted ones in lackluster films that depend solely on his star power to succeed. This conversation took place in the mall late last year as I was walking past the theatrical poster for Charlie Wilson’s War. The poster (shown above) was voted the worst of the year by the Internet Movie Poster Association, but I’d actually go a step further and call it just about the worst movie poster I’ve ever seen. I almost want to hang it on my wall… as a joke. Just look at it. Really, has there ever been a poster that makes you NOT want to see a movie more? And what’s Philip Seymour Hoffman supposed to be doing exactly?

Now after finally viewing the film I’ve determined that this poster captures the movie perfectly and no other could have possibly been more appropriate. There’s a lot of talk but nothing really happens. What it has going for it, however, is a spry, energetic tone and two strong performances, one of which does come from Hanks. But the movie is so sincere and earnest and the actors look to be having such a great time I almost feel guilty bashing it. It’s as if everyone involved with the picture convinced themselves they were telling the most interesting story in American history, but then forgot to put it up on screen. Don’t tell them that though. They’re having too much fun and probably wouldn’t listen anyway. This is Ocean’s 14: The Cold War Years. The only thing missing from the poster and the film is George Clooney.

It’s the early 1980’s and the United States is in the midst of The Cold War while freewheeling Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is busy indulging his interests in hard partying and beautiful women. While cavorting with strippers in a hot tub he happens to catch a Dan Rather report from Afghanistan detailing the struggles of the inadequately armed Afghan fighters against the Soviet invasion. Appalled by the lack of support the Afghans have gotten from our government the flamboyant but well-liked Wilson uses his Congressional pull to set up his own committee and stage a covert war. He recruits the ultra-conservative, anti-communist socialite Joanne Herring (a woefully miscast Julia Roberts) as well as a loose cannon CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman) to help beef up support and plan a new strategy. A visit to an Afghan refugee camp populated by wounded children just further inspires Wilson and Herring.

Through Wilson’s efforts U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, which at the time was only about $5 million, increased substantially and his work has been credited with contributing to the collapse of The Soviet Union and bringing about the end of The Cold War. Unfortunately, a major side effect of this strategy is that Wilson ended up unintentionally arming the Taliban, which years later led to the events of September 11th, 2001. Oops. But the movie is especially careful not to actually place blame on Wilson since things didn’t start to go to hell there until years after the events in the film took place. It’s also mentioned many times that more had to be done than just throw money and weapons at the Afghans. It was the U.S. government’s job to follow through on Wilson’s work and they didn’t. Still, it’s fascinating that something that seemed like such a great idea at the time ended up turning into such a disaster. That’s this movie’s meal ticket and what gives the story a more meaningful undercurrent than it would have had otherwise.

This is a film that will play best with history buffs and those deeply interested in foreign policy and politics. Although I’m betting even they may find their patience tried by the film’s self-congratulatory tone. Everyone else will find even less enjoyment in it and may actually be bored despite the breezy running time and light touches. Part of the problem is that there’s no challenge or conflict in the film. Charlie Wilson is just such a charming, likeable guy you can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to help him. What Hanks manages to convey well is that despite Wilson’s superficial character flaws he’s essentially the only honest politician there is and makes no bones about the fact that he really wants to make a difference. Hanks is so sincere as an actor that he’s perfect for the role, even if the unfortunate side effect is that he turns womanizing and drug abuse into almost admirable qualities.

With her spotty Texas accent and cartoonish mannerisms Roberts doesn’t fare nearly as well as Hanks and her thankfully abbreviated appearances in the film come off more as parody than performance. But I was too busy laughing at her perfectly coiffed hair to even care. I’d say she probably spent anywhere between 36 and 47 straight hours in the hair and makeup trailer before cameras started rolling. Luckily, Hoffman steals the show with his justifiably Oscar-nominated supporting turn as rebel CIA agent Gust. There isn’t much to the character which makes his work that much more impressive. With just a few scenes, Hoffman suggests a whole history to this guy that makes each action he takes infinitely more interesting. Between this and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead it’s been a great year for Hoffman, but it’s a shame the movies he starred in weren’t worthy of the performances he gave. The great Ned Beatty appears, all too briefly, in a worthless throwaway part while Amy Adams is underutilized as Wilson’s “personal assistant.” Emily Blunt has a tiny but extremely memorable role as the daughter of one of Wilson’s constituents. Despite her screen time being limited to about 2 minutes her sizzling scene was just about the only thing in the entire film that legitimately stayed with me.

This was directed with maybe too much energetic vigor by Mike Nichols who goes to great lengths to show us that the charismatic Charlie Wilson LOVES WOMEN. Nichols shoots so many creepy, leering ass and cleavage shots of Wilson’s secretaries (one of whom he affectionately nicknames “Jailbait”) you’d think he was directing a soft-core porn film. The script is from Emmy-Award winning West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin, and it's full of zippy one-liners and catchphrases. It has a real “Old Hollywood” screwball comedy feel to it and despite its many flaws manages to be goofy and endearing, even if I suspect most its laughs are unintentional. For Nichols this effort is a long way from The Graduate, but not too far off from Primary Colors.

This was one of those DVD’s where I was more interested in the special features than the film because I knew all the actors would be slapping each other’s asses and tripping over themselves describing what a wonderful experience making this was. They’d gush about all these fascinating facets to the story that are nowhere to be found in the actual movie. I was right, but in all fairness after actually seeing and hearing from the real Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring you have more of an appreciation for Hanks and Roberts’ takes on them. I don’t know if that necessarily makes their performances any better but it does make for an engaging contrast. It’s too bad the list of people this film will appeal to is short. It would likely include the families of Hanks, Roberts, Hoffman, Nichols and Sorkin, as well as history teachers over the age of 50. Oh, and Clooney of course. Maybe for the sequel they can all get together and hit a Vegas casino.

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