Charlie Wilson’s War will only ‘offend the easily offended’
Contrary to the simple-minded perception that Ronald Reagan single-handedly ended the Cold War by standing tall and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the true story is almost as dramatic. In a black comedy sort of way.
As the ol’ saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Nowhere in recent American history did good intentions yield such a disastrous return than with the Cold War shenanigans of Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson. An affable bachelor noted for having a taste for hard drinking and hanging out with strippers, Wilson was also well regarded as maintaining a keen political mind.
Based on the nonfiction account by George Crile and adapted by The West Wing‘s wunderkind Aaron Sorkin, here the account is given the Cliff’s Notes approach by director Mike Nichol.
Prodded by a wealthy socialite (Julia Roberts) and erstwhile lover, Wilson (Tom Hanks) hooks up with a loose cannon CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to take the matters that didn’t seem to matter into their own hands. In the ‘80s the United States was taking a “wait-'n'-see” approach to the Soviet invasion of the then near-anonymous Afghanistan.
Circumventing established doctrine, Wilson helps lead the effort to provide U.S. aid to the Mujahideen in their shared goal to repel the Commie threat, funneling billions of laundered taxpayer dollars into the effort to supply the rebels with the sorely needed weaponry to fight back against their oppressors … which ultimately returned way more than anyone would have expected. Such as the Taliban and al-Qaida filling the vacuum as the crippled Soviet forces retreated, along with a CIA-trained freedom fighter (at the time) called Osama bin Laden. Of course, that doesn’t get too much play here.
What could have been a Strangelovian adventure in the underbelly of the beltway is instead pretty much nothing more than a dark-humored screwball comedy.
As they say, mileage may vary on what one expects out of something like this, but if approached as an opportunity to watch a couple of actors take on some exceptional dialogue (for a change) and cut loose with the material, one could do worse.
Hoffman carries the bulk of the acting chops and keeps Hanks on his toes. Sorkin’s dialogue is rapier quick for a nice change, avoiding the more overt tin-eared didacticism that he fell into with the ill-fated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and the actors obviously enjoy the opportunity to deliver his words for all they can wring from them. A miscast Roberts does her best to keep up but is left in the sawdust of the scenery, although not in a way that handicaps the proceedings.
The weak link here is Nichols, who tones down and dilutes the script to avoid any real risk of offending anyone but the easily offended. Most notable is the substitution of a banners-and-bunting ending in lieu of a darker denouement on Sept. 11, 2001.
Putting aside veracity for focusing on recouping the budget, Charlie Wilson’s War is passable entertainment, glib and arch at times in the expected Nichol’s mode. As such, it’s entertaining but not particularly insightful.