Film Review: Charlie Wilson’s War

When we first meet Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, he’s naked in a Las Vegas hot tub full of coke-sniffing strippers and Playmates. But when he sees Dan Rather in a turban reporting from Afghanistan, he perks up and asks the bartender to turn up the TV.

That’s Wilson in a nutshell, a whiskey guzzling, tail-chasing believer in the good life, who just so happens to be extremely interested in the hottest front of the Cold War in the early ‘80s, Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union has just invaded (The Afghan people are, he notes, “the only people actually shooting at the Russians.”)

The two seemingly conflicting sides of the character amount to two character traits, and that’s about the extent to which director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (working from the late George Crile’s non-fiction book of the same name), and Tom Hanks flesh Wilson out. Hanks’ co-stars similarly get two traits a piece.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (under tinted glasses, a moustache and funny hair) plays a CIA agent, who’s gruff and inelegant but earnest. A blonde Julia Roberts’s Texas fundraiser/activist is an ultra-right wing holy roller who shares Wilson’s love of a good time.

In a completely fictive movie, the characters might seem a little thin, but considering this is a true story—or at least “based on a true story”—then Nichols and company get a bit of a pass, as the truth can’t always be held to the same dramatic standards as feature film might (Particularly from me; I imagine a large swathe of the audience of this movie will remember some of these events as they were occurring, but I’m afraid my only interest in geopolitics in the early ‘80s was whether that ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world Cobra would ever defeat America’s daring highly-trained special mission force G.I. Joe).

It certainly helps how well Hanks—flexing his too often neglected comedic muscles—finds the country-fried charm in his character. His Wilson is in the right place and the right time, and possessing the right inclination, to get funding to the Afghans willing to fight the Russians. Roberts’ wealthy socialite identifies his keystone nature and seeks to exploit it, and they find a kindred spirit in Hoffman’s angry man agent.

Nichols spends most of his allotted time focusing on their initial battles to win funding to get weapons into the hands of their allies, and to do so in such a way that the U.S. will continue to be able to deny they’re helping shoot down Russian helicopters. From there, the film sort of montages through seven or eight years, spending more time on events than the people driving them.

But they are certainly exciting events, and it’s rather refreshing to return to the more black and white, Cold War hero/villain film paradigm, in which the Russians are the unequivocal bad guys. They just make for a much easier enemy to root against than the nebulous, country-less terrorists that play America’s enemies in most movies these days, you know?

Sorkin and Nichols frame Wilson as an ultimate American hero—a man of many character flaws but also admirable courage and noble virtue who manages to do great things. There are fist-pumping victories in the film to be sure, but Nichols keeps it far from feel-good territory, as both Hanks’ and Hoffman’s characters seem cognizant of where things can go from there, and their victory is presented as an unpredictable domino. The Russian defeat in Afghanistan went a way towards winning the Cold War, sure. But did it also lead to the takeover of the country by the Taliban? To 9/11? To the Iraq War?

As the quote coda from the real Wilson points out, the story is essentially one of a great victory with an element of tragedy. In other words, it’s a typically American story, for better and for worse, and the film is a clear-eyed presentation of it.

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  • JudyHeath-Bettendorf, Iowa

    OK-wait a minute! I saw this because it looked good, I love Tom Hanks and can now say this is the first ever bad movie he made.
    We are watching a film that has him raising money to help the poor afghanis`-(hmm-guess Bin Ladin doesn’t care about them?) and then we send them a Billion dollars to knock the Russians out of the sky and send them home—OK, are these the same missiles that they are effectively using on us? The ones that we gave them? And you made a movie about this with 3,000+ dead of our kids plus God knows how many more maimed and injured and not getting any congressional support now why????
    Poor taste-poor judgement and I will never again go to a movie without reviewing it first-I’m especially ashamed of Tom Hanks who is so much better than this travesty.

  • katiej

    Charlie Wilson was a terrible congressional representative to his constituents, as I was one of them. He manipulated the voting lines so that he could keep getting elected. This story is not accurate when it says he was a bachelor; in fact, he was very much married and cheating on his wife most of his elected life and she divorced his sorry backside. After old Charlie, Texas went Republican and that’s about the only thing he single-handedly accomplished. He is an embarrassment to Texas and especially to those constituents who were unlucky enough to not be able to kick his sorry backside out of office soon enough. If you will look at the online newspapers of those towns he represented, you will find their polls say 56 percent WILL NOT see this movie. He was owned lock, stock, and barrell by the Temple-Inland Company of Dibol, Texas and he did what they told him to do. He was elected by them to work for them as they were, at the time, one of the largest timber companies in Texas. He was their “boy”.
    Tom Hanks did not choose his role carefully.He should be embarrassed to play this role. This movie is not representative of who Charles Wilson was–he was much worse. My husband was a Vietnam Veteran with PTSD and I was writing his office asking for help. It was during the time he was “playing war”. I will not spend one dime on this movie. It is an outrage and an embarrassment to me for this movie to be made. The Republicans took office and straightened out the voting lines that Wilson had malaligned. I now have a very fine representative and have never had another Charles Wilson, thank God.

  • kathy

    Who was Herring in bed with at the end of the movie.

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  • http://www.kogmedia.com patrick

    Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are a classic combination… Charlie Wilson’s War made me feel a little better about U.S. foreign intervention, it seemed to work out that time

  • Katherine

    Patrick, in the end, it didn’t really work out for the Afgani’s…the USA is always ready to start a war and have lots of war machines and poke their noses in, but the aftermath is of no interest to them.

    Having said that, I loved the movie and learned alot.

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