The maneuvering and negotiating that goes into war is complicated. Deals are made by members of Congress, compromises are structured, numbers are crunched and the corridors of the Pentagon, the White House and the Capitol are abuzz with the wrangling and haggling that could determine the fate of the nation.
In the conventional cinematic sense, this could all be very boring. But “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a flawlessly calculated rendition of America’s covert role in the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s from director Mike Nichols (“Closer”) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (TV’s “The West Wing”), proves that it can also make for a compelling, easily digestible film that manages to be both incisively relevant and superbly entertaining.
The film stars Tom Hanks (“Cast Away”) in the title role of the real-life Texas congressman who learned of the Afghan resistance to brutal Soviet advances and decided to do something to help defeat the communists. With millionaire socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, “Erin Brockovich”) at his side, Wilson manages to turn Congress and the CIA toward the Afghan cause, thereby initiating the largest covert war in American history. The Soviets were defeated, but of course, the war still isn’t quite over.
What Wilson managed to do almost single-handedly is remarkable. So much of what is happening in the world today can be traced back to the decisions this one man made more than 20 years ago. It would be tempting for a filmmaker, in this first Oscar season to feature a full slate of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to impress upon audiences the supreme significance of this story. Nichols and Sorkin, however, deftly avoid that trap. “Charlie Wilson’s War” stands apart from the year’s other political films because it manages to engage and inform while eschewing the overwrought theatrics that turned many viewers away from films like “Rendition” and “In the Valley of Elah.”
Expert nuance and a soft touch are hard enough to come by in Hollywood as it is, but they are especially unexpected from the pen of Sorkin. The celebrated, Emmy-winning creator of “The West Wing” is undoubtedly the perfect man to tell a story about American politics, but Sorkin has also recently been criticized for his cartoonishly earnest characters and overcooked themes (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”). Here, though, he delivers a script that is as lively, vibrant and responsive as the many colorful characters it contains. The film’s many stars are given roles that are limitless, impossible to overact and so easy to make memorable.
Hanks and Roberts are superb as usual, but it’s the film’s other Oscar winner, Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”), who steals the show. As the haggard, out of shape Gust Avrakotos, the agent in charge of the CIA’s Afghan desk, Hoffman brings out his patented understated comedic quality, which ultimately drives the film. Without Avrakotos, Wilson wouldn’t have had the knowledge or insight to make his war happen. Likewise, without Hoffman’s snappy retorts and odd soliloquies, this film simply wouldn’t be as good.
Responding to Hoffman’s under-handed quips and Roberts’ charm, Hanks finds the perfect balance between the many different sides of his character, all while maintaining that sharp ear for dialect and humble, bemused expression that audiences have come to love him for. He portrays Wilson’s enthusiasm and passion thoroughly, but uses subtle, lingering glances and hanging phrases to portray with great hindsight the uncertainty that surrounds the story.
For Wilson, a man known for his many personal indiscretions, it was an act of pure conscience and supreme courage to generate support and funding in America for a rebel cause thousands of miles away. The untold ramifications that his actions have had are not a side note to this film’s premise. It is the very inconclusiveness of the film that is ultimately larger than any of its characters and even its remarkable story.
5 out of 5 stars
Charlie Wilson’s War
At Quality 16 and Showcase