Universal // 2007 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 22nd, 2008
Based on the outrageous true story.
Joanne Herring: Why is congress saying one thing and doing nothing?
Charlie Wilson: Well, tradition mostly.
The hero of Charlie Wilson's War is, of course, Charlie Wilson, played here by Tom Hanks (The Green Mile). The time is the early 1980s, and Wilson is a congressman from Texas who has "a lot of character flaws." He's an alcoholic, he's a womanizing sexist, and he is not above going around the law to get what he wants from time to time. Despite this, Charlie is an honest man, if little else. When he tells someone that he's going to look into the plight of suffering people in Afghanistan (who are being oppressed by the Russian military), he means it. Upon discovering the horrors taking place in the Middle East, Wilson determines to make a difference by raising U.S. government funding for Afghanistan. To do this, he enlists the assistance of a CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Capote) and a wealthy Texas conservative (Julia Roberts, Ocean's 11).
There are great directors, and then there are competent directors who have an ability to find good scripts. I've begun to suspect that Mike Nichols is the latter. How else to explain the wildly different levels of quality over the course of his career? He'll toss out a great film like Primary Colors one day, and a piece of dreck like What Planet Are You From? the next. There are few distinguishing qualities in Nichols films that set them apart from the rest, nothing in particular that makes one say, "this must have been directed by Mike Nichols." No, he is perhaps not a great director, but he is certainly capable of doing great scripts justice (see Closer).
Here he has found a solid script, if not a perfect one, from hit-and-miss writer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's writing on various films and television shows like The West Wing frequently relies far too much on preachiness and is obnoxiously self-congratulatory. I suspected that the last thing we needed right now was a Sorkin screenplay, with all the self-important, ineffectual, and wearisome political/war dramas flooding the cinema these days. I'm happy to have been proven wrong. Charlie Wilson's War is a political film that is actually going to make people sit up and listen, because it offers its message in a sharp, intelligent, and surprisingly funny manner.
The story is a very compelling one, and the film offers a behind-the-scenes look at a part of American history I confess to knowing very little about. Before this film, I had never heard of Charlie Wilson, and that's a shame. While the personal behavior of the congressman is something everyone should avoid, the political behavior of Charlie Wilson ought to be considered by a lot more politicians out there. Hanks offers an appealing and credible performance, somewhat echoing John Travolta's Clinton-esque turn in Primary Colors. Julia Roberts struggles a great deal in a vain attempt to create a credible Texas accent (it sounds more like something out of Gone with the Wind), but the character she plays is interesting enough to make us forget about that. Without question, the show is stolen by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose caustic and slightly sweet portrayal of a government spy is just terrific. The Oscar nomination he received for the role was indeed very well deserved. There are also nice little supporting turns from the likes of Amy Adams (Enchanted) and Ned Beatty (Deliverance).
The DVD gets a very solid transfer, which nicely accentuates the very bright and crisp color palette. The film mostly takes place in well-lit offices and outdoor locations, which nicely suits the lightly satirical comic tone. Sound is pretty impressive as well. Mostly, it's pretty simple during this dialogue-heavy film. However, there are a few moments where sound work and James Newton Howard's strong score have a chance to shine. In particular, the sequence that shows the Afghan people finally defending themselves against the Russians is a terrific audio showcase (which is underscored a wittily original composition by Newton Howard). In terms of extras, there are only a couple of featurettes. The "making-of" piece (17 minutes) features interviews with everybody who's anybody from the cast and crew, and there's a lot of back-slapping going on. "Who Is Charlie Wilson?" is a too-brief look (12 minutes) at the real-life character the film is based on.
The film is by no means without flaws. I feel that it has a tendency to gloss over some very complex issues, and that it probably would have been more effective if it had been released a decade ago. While the film takes the time to acknowledge some of the flaws and mistakes made (even devoting an apt Charlie Wilson quote in the end credits to the matter), the movie in general is a bit too involved in hero worship at the expense of complexity. Particularly in this era, the extreme religious fundamentalism that is nervously promoted in this movie would be the source of a great deal of negativity in the years that follow. That's something that I'm quite sure the movie recognizes, but it doesn't really want to discuss the matter. This a movie about a man doing the thing that was right at the time, and producing remarkable short-term results, if some (perhaps unforeseeable) long-term problems.
The overall tone of this film is refreshing; it makes thinking about politics a lot more involving and a lot less of a guilt-induced chore than many more "serious" political dramas released in the past year. The laughs come quite regularly, but they're the variety that you're likely to choke on. It's difficult to make political satire work a lot of times, and Charlie Wilson's War isn't quite up to the level of Wag the Dog or even The Daily Show, but it's a significant improvement over most of the other recent cinematic offerings of this sort. If you prefer group discussions and intelligent conversations over bombastic and ominous sermons, Charlie Wilson's War comes recommended. Still, it's a shame that most of the recent political films (Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss) have been so weak, and I feel a little disappointed at having to say that this is one of the best. Putting all that aside, I can recommend a rental at the very least for Charlie Wilson's War, and maybe a purchase if you are particularly fond of Aaron Sorkin's style of politically-charged screenwriting.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "The Making of Charlie Wilson's War"
* "Who is Charlie Wilson?"
* Official Site