A lot of my favorite scenes on television over the last decade have involved long hallway shots: Peter Krause walking down the hall with Josh Charles, or Bradley Whitford sharing the same with Rob Lowe or even Whitford walking and furiously chattering with Matthew Perry. But as I watched Aaron Sorkin’s first movie script since becoming a television writer (he also wrote A Few Good Men and The American President before his “West Wing” years), it occurred to me that all those guys really are television actors. Contrast their iconic (at least, among dungy, booze-scented, smoke-filled websites like Pajiba) roles on “Sports Night” and “West Wing,” with their big-screen credits, and I think you get the idea: Whitford was a schmuck in Billy Madison and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants; Rob Lowe was a schmuck in Austin Powers, Tommy Boy, and Wayne’s World; while Krause — for the few people who witnessed it — got his ass handed to him thespian-wise by Mark Ruffallo, Laura Dern, and Naomi Watts in We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Even Matthew Perry — no matter what you thought of “Studio 60,” there’s no denying he was absolutely brilliant as Matt Albie — looks out-of-his-league on the big screen, though he has had some modest box-office success.
I mention this because, watching Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman share a hall in Charlie Wilson’s War made me realize why these two guys are two of the absolute best movie stars in the business. These two actors took what would’ve been a brilliant episode of the “West Wing” and made it into a motherfucking film, in a way that, as much as I love them on that small screen, Whitford, Krause, or Perry never could have. They gave Sorkin’s lightweight story some gravitas, and turned what had been merely a pretty goddamn funny script into a drama with comedic fangs. And if, like me, you used to get goosebumps watching one of those indelible Sorkin walk-and-talk exchanges on the little screen, wait until you see Hanks and Hoffman riff off of one another in a theater. Sorkin has always had the benefit of great actors with a gift for Sorkinese patter, but these two transcend Sorkin, chewing up his words and spitting them back out as their own. Indeed, Charlie Wilson’s War proves why television is a writing medium, while film is an acting one — on TV, I would’ve marveled at that same script, but on the silver screen, it’s hard at times to appreciate anything but Hanks and Hoffman.
Putting aside the acting, temporarily, the storyline itself is also enlightening as all hell, bringing attention to an episode in American politics that rarely gets much play, despite the impact it would later have on our country. Based on a book by the same title, written by George Crile III, Charlie reveals the little-known, little-discussed connection between the fall of communism and the eventual rise of Al Qaida. Indeed, many of us (liberals, at least) with the benefit of hindsight now see our arming of the Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union as something insidious; self-serving, arms dealing that eventually led to the rise of the splinter group fronted by Osama Bin Laden. But in reality, and what Charlie Wilson’s War illustrates, was that it was an obscure liberal Texas congressman who engineered the campaign to fund the CIA’s effort to arm the Mujahideen in their war against the Soviets. Why? Because the Afghans were getting their asses kicked in a very inhumane, women-raped, children killed sort of way, and because it was resulting in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Afghanistan and living in squalid conditions in Pakistan and other countries. And while most countries in the world, including the United States, were ignoring the plight of these Afghans, Charlie Wilson sought to increase appropriations to the country and, eventually, partnered with Gust Avrakatos (played by Hoffman in the film) in the CIA to arm them with enough weaponry to take down Russian helicopters and fighter jets. It was the success of the Mujahideen against the Soviets that would evolve into the global anti-communist resistance known as Reagan Doctrine, which would lead to the fall the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Obviously, that’s a very broad, simplified version of what happened, but this is a movie review, and I’m not a historian.
All of this, of course, is tracked in Charlie Wilson’s War, but it’s tempered with a mountain of levity, mostly in the form of Wilson’s heavy-drinking, womanizing ways; impeccably written zingers; and Mike Nichol’s (sometimes) gift for satire. In the movie’s version of events (and, obviously, massive dramatic liberties were taken), much of the entire funding operation had as much to do with Charlie Wilson’s alcohol-infused libido as it did with killing Russians. Indeed, his policy decisions often seemed to be driven by his dick; he takes up this cause, for instance, on the insistence of Joanne Herring (Julia Robert), a sexy religious nut who … er … vaginally encourages Wilson to appropriate the funds because, as she sees it, the Soviet-Afghan conflict was a religious war and Jesus would want the Afghans to beat those Satanic communists. Roberts, who only has a small role (about ten minutes of screen time, all told) nevertheless does a superb job of capturing that heavily made-up, sassy Anne Richardsian Texas female stereotype. Amy Adams, who plays Wilson’s congressional aide, is given considerably more screen time, but there is little for Adams to do in the role but act as Wilson’s sounding board; she does so admirably (and dreamily). In the midst of Wilson’s efforts to engineer funding for the Mujihadeen, he is also fighting off an ethics investigation into his drug use headed up by a then-unknown federal prosecutor, Rudolph Giuliani, which Sorkin beautifully works into the story — the investigation distracts the attention away from his efforts to raise money for a country Americans didn’t give a shit about.
I’m struggling here in trying to capture the essence of Charlie Wilson’s War; it’s a hard movie to describe: A hilarious satire about serious, politically-heavy matters. It’s an impressive feat. I always felt that Mike Nichols botched Primary Colors, but here — thanks in large part to a much better cast and script — he gets it right, successfully merging politics with comedy, while wisely tempering some of the tear-jerky heart wringing that you could tell Sorkin was going for in the end; it’s what Sorkin does, after all — beat you with that whiplash poignancy many of us know and love. However, it would’ve felt out of place in a movie of this magnitude. And while, on its surface, Charlie Wilson’s War is a lightweight, dark comedy meant to entertain, it’s actually had the effect of being more thought provoking than a lot of the more serious anti-war films this year. Like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” the truthiness is obscured by the comedy, but it doesn’t lessen the impact.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Charlie Wilson's War / Dustin Rowles
Film | December 26, 2007 | Comments ()