- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Will Harris
harlie Wilson’s quite a character. In his first several minutes on the screen, we see him tossing back drinks, hanging out in a hot tub with a stripper, two hookers, and a Hollywood producer, and – very briefly – performing his duties as a Congressman for the great state of Texas. Wilson admitted to ethical lapses and reportedly once made a public statement that he refused to go to rehab because they didn’t serve whiskey there, yet despite such actions (or perhaps because of them), he continued to be re-elected to office by his constituents, ultimately serving in Congress from 1973 to 1996.
Yeah, he’s definitely one of those guys who’s helped keep the phrase “nice work if you can get it” in the vernacular.
In 1980, however, Wilson became aware of a number of refugees fleeing Afghanistan because of the Soviets, and he was so horrified that he decided to do something about it. Thus began a series of behind-the-scenes events which would eventually find Wilson’s name mentioned in certain political circles as one of those directly responsible for the fall of the Soviet empire, which ain’t bad for a guy who spent the majority of his political career with a drink in his hand, and the whole sordid tale was laid out in George Crile’s 2003 book, “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times.”
Given such a wordy title, it’s no wonder that, when the book’s film rights were optioned, the task of writing the screenplay fell into the hands of Aaron Sorkin, late of “The West Wing.” It’s also decidedly appropriate that Mike Nichols should have been handed the directorial reigns, given his experience with both the political (“Primary Colors”) and the bureaucratic (“Catch-22”). Unfortunately, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is still the kind of film that requires a studio to approve overtime for their marketing department. With Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as its leads, it’s obvious that the issue isn’t star power; after all, those two names alone will almost certainly prove sufficient to fill the seats for a substantial first-week take, and that’s not even factoring in that they’re surrounded by folks like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Emily Blunt.
No, the folks over at Universal probably spent the majority of their man hours figuring out how to design the posters and edit the trailers in such a way to avoid revealing just how much political and war-related chatter the film contains. The wisest possible move: play up the comedy.
“Charlie Wilson’s War” isn’t funny in a gut-busting kind of way, but Sorkin’s script is full of so many clever one-liners that, for all its political content, it’s still hard to refer to it as anything other than a comedy; that’s mostly thanks to Hoffman, whose role as mustachioed CIA agent Gust Avrakotos provides him with an unending series of great moments. Hanks turns in a perfectly acceptable performance as Wilson, but it’s distractingly reminiscent of his Dean Martin impression from the “Global Warming Christmas Special” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” (To be fair, that might not bother others as much as it does me, since it’s a relatively obscure sketch, but it was all I could think about.) The rapport between Hanks and Roberts – who plays Joanne Herring, the Houston socialite and political activist who helped Wilson in his quest to arm and train the Afghanis – is solid, but poor Amy Adams gets precious little to do in her role as Wilson’s steadfast assistant, Bonnie Bach.
For all its humor, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is too often bogged down by the aforementioned political discussions; admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how the film could’ve done without them, given its topic, but that doesn’t make those scenes any easier to endure. The first part of the film is heavy on introducing Wilson and showing what a flawed character he is, thereby providing the dramatic heft as he finds redemption in his quest to help the people of Afghanistan, but it’s also the funnier part of the flick, thanks to Hanks’ delivery of the one-liners that establish Wilson’s personality. Once he heads off to see the country first-hand, however, the tide turns such that the majority of the laughs come not from Hanks but from Hoffman, and he’s so good that you become distracted whenever he’s not in a scene, wondering, “When’s he coming back?”
Charlie Wilson’s War” is an interesting, intellectual, and amusing look at a surprising historical footnote, and it’d be a crime if it didn’t earn Hoffman a Best Supporting Actor nod, but if you aren’t a political junkie, expect to stifle quite a few yawns before the closing credits roll.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Universal continues to disappoint on the DVD front with the single-disc release of “Charlie Wilson’s War.” There are no audio commentaries, no deleted scenes, and not a single making-of featurette. Sure, there’s a bonus feature titled “The Making of Charlie Wilson’s War,” but it’s more about the real-life Charlie Wilson than the actual making of the film. Also included is an in-depth featurette (“Who is Charlie Wilson?”) dedicated to the congressman’s time in office, but if you’ve already watched the movie, what more could you possible learn?