Director Mike Nichols brings his wisdom, cool incisiveness, and keen ability to crack wise in this odd yet most potent paste-up job of a socio-political satire. We revel in the period piece funhouse of its ‘80s kitsch and the gonzo jerry-rigging of politics to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan - as cleverly maneuvered by former Texan congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and a few conspirators. And it’s all in good fun, on some level, making it perfectly timed for the holiday movie season.
But, of course, a more real and sobering story takes place beyond the edges of the breezy one told here, and that story is told in Wilson’s tearful look of defeat by film’s end. The covert war lubed by American money and weaponry in Afghanistan - and the subsequent abandonment of their social welfare while the Taliban geared up its oppressive machinery - is the unstated subplot of Charlie Wilson’s War. And the elephant in the room of this particular chapter in history is Osama bin Laden and the forces of anti-American terrorism in the Middle East, which festered in the wake of the Soviet smackdown.
In a portent of the future present, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s CIA rogue character at one point comments, “Sooner or late, God is gonna’ be on both sides.”
Clearly, that larger sweep of historical reality is part of the motivation behind George Crile’s 2003 book and Nichols’s smartly-crafted and funny film adaptation. Still, Charlie Wilson’s War comes up just shy of classic. We’re swept into the political satire spin of the film; akin to the delicious audacity of movies like Wag the Dog. But there are also moments along the way where the seams show and the integrity sags. (Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has written for TV’s West Wing, shows his smug, small-screen, weekly serial craftiness a bit too often here.)
In this role about a whiskey-‘n’-women loving old boy congressman, Hanks’s darker side is a few shades too light to do this role complete justice, but you’ve gotta’ love him just the same. Here, he gets smoked - at least on charisma standards - by Hoffman, who once again handily steals every shot he’s in. We meet him in a memorable meltdown scene in the CIA offices, making mincemeat of his superior officer and his office window.
Once Hoffman and Hanks become an unlikely team for their game of “killing Soviets,” there is much salty banter and a common cause in their covert war-making machinery. The morally-challenged but closet humanitarian politician tells the cynical, rotund secret agent, “You ain’t no James Bond,” to which Hoffman replies, “You ain’t no Thomas Jefferson. Let’s call it even.” The third party in the pact, a manipulating Southern belle played (with saucy South-of-the-Mouth moxie) by Julia Roberts, is not to be reckoned with herself.
In a year when Hollywood finally began checking in on real world woes and sources of dread, whether specifically, or in ominous allegories like No Country for Old Men, Charlie Wilson’s War is a different kind of narrative social commentary. It supplies some of the all-important backdrop for what has transpired since 9/11, and reminds us of the dizzy continuum surrounding the world’s upheaval. That it does so coated with ripe hilarity adds seductive fizz to the gloom proving that reality checks don’t have to be dramatic suppositories.
For showtimes, check the Independent‘s movie listings, here.