United States, 2007
Directed By: Mike Nichols
Written By: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Tom Hanks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use
Note: This review was originally published February 16th, 2008
Charlie Wilson’s War is like a bowl of excellent vanilla ice cream. All the ingredients are of the highest quality, no expense has been spared, and the culinary talent on display is superb. In the end, though, it’s just plain vanilla.
Tom Hanks plays the congressman of the title, who through the not-so-gentle prodding of rich heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) finds himself financing a war in Afghanistan against the Russians. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, in my opinion, is one of the three greatest living actors alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp) rips away every scene he is in from his costars as the NSA spook Gust Avrakotos. Gust is the devil in the details, and he handles the nitty gritty logistics of the campaign like some kind of egomaniacal armchair general. Its little surprise that he’s up for Best Supporting Actor, although the nomination could have easily gone for one of his other two grade A performances this year (The Savagesand Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead).
Mike Nichols direction is assured, but he really takes a backseat to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a Sorkin fan, as his tommygun-paced dialogue grates on me the wrong way (I sat through most episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with eyes a rollin’), but I loved every moment of his script. The film abounds with choice lines like “You know you’ve reached rock bottom when you’re told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup” and “Can we just take a moment to reflect on all of the ways that you are a douche bag?” Coming out of the mouths of Hanks, Roberts, and Hoffman, the banter is pure pleasure. A more smartly written film you’re not likely to find, and I chuckled throughout.
There is some political posturing at the end, but it’s not in-your-face preaching (unlike many of the other Iraq war diatribes that reached the screen this year), and the effect our operations in Afghanistan had on the world and our own future is profound. Films that make a statement often feel like so many blaring tubas, but Sorkin and Nichols make their appeal with subtlety and effectiveness.
Returning to the vanilla analogy, the story, while true, is not particularly flavorful (i.e., cinematic). Wilson gets the funding, they give guns to the Afghans, they beat back the Russians (and start the beginning of the end of the Cold War), and that’s it. The movie opens on Wilson accepting an award for what he accomplished, so I’m hardly giving anything away. Based the book of the same name, Charlie Wilson’s War is the poster child for a story that probably read much better on the page then it plays out onscreen. Put another way, it feels like a made for TV movie that was raised out of the slums by the pedigree of its talent (and Sorkin’s script), but its not hard to imagine it as a movie of the week starring Rob Lowe and Heather Locklear. However, you could do a lot worse than a nice bowl of vanilla bean (I recommend Blue Bell, myself).