The Reeler


December 20, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Nichols and Co.'s foreign policy caper puts up a decent fight, but Hoffman wins the War

Philip Seymour Hoffman does more with a pop of his eyes at the end of Charlie Wilson's War, Mike Nichols's spry, unlikely foreign policy caper, than most actors manage in a full film's work. He's like a Marine of acting -- a marvel of economy and a master of the overblown, as physically intrinsic and expressive as he is internal and implosive. He's the chocolate and the peanut butter, and because he's the one thing in Charlie Wilson's War I felt sure about, I thought an ode to at least that certainty might be in order.

Any anxieties I had about the strangely cartoonish opening (about as subtle as a cold sore, an Afghan is shown rising from prayer only to point an RPG at... you! Cue starburst morphing into the American flag), Congressman Charlie Wilson's (Tom Hanks) hot tub epiphany about the Mujahideen, Julia Roberts's anemic grande dame impersonation and the folksy wink given to his obvious alcoholism were set at ease when Hoffman first trundles onscreen as CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, lowering the boom on his boss for punishing his temper with a dick assignment behind a desk. The angrier he got, the more I relaxed.

"How was I?" Hoffman pauses to ask a secretary as he storms out of the office, having bellowed the words "I am an American!" in outraged conclusion and kicked in a window for good measure. It's one the film's irresistible meta-moments, which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (working from George Crile's book of the same name) employs to both wry and more resonant effect. "Why is Congress saying one thing and doing another?" Wilson is asked. "Tradition, mainly," he replies.

In 1980, Charlie Wilson was a six-term Texas Congressman who seemed to get by on mushy math answers like that one, having distinguished himself with exactly no legislative achievements of note. Pricked by the plight of the Afghan people as the Soviets came rolling in, he made the decision to double the funding for the U.S covert operations budget against the Soviets in Afghanistan from $5 million to $10 million -- still an insignificant number. Wilson's office is portrayed as a hotbed of good-old-boy sexism; he surrounds himself with a staff of lovelies he calls "jailbait," who are forever hitching their tight-skirted bottoms up onto his desk along with one quandary or another. Head lovely assistant is Bonnie Bach, a role which finds the intent, shiny-eyed Amy Adams wasted on a lot of indulgent beaming and schedule clutching. By contrast, the deep-dish role of Texan socialite Joanne Herring is wasted on Julia Roberts, who lets her hoisted brow-line do much of the brittle, headstrong work as she matches soggy Southern accents with Hanks.

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Herring strong-arms (and legs and shoulders and mouths) Wilson into taking a role in her pet project, specifically meeting with the president of Pakistan to discuss a shared role in arming and aiding the Mujahideen. Wilson hooks up with Avrakotos in a hilariously staged, upstairs-downstairs kind of office set-piece, in which the Aquanet assistants buzz in and out, attempting damage control on a cocaine story involving the Congressman while Wilson and Avrakotos suss each other out as potentially effective shit-disturbers. Nichols stages a visit to the Peshawar refugee camp where millions of Afghans settled after the invasion, and it is, along with that opening animation, the one nearly embarrassing scene; originally shot in Morocco, apparently much of the scene had to be re-shot in LA, and it shows -- it looks more like a casting call for The Nativity Story. If it's meant to present politics as a kind of traveling sideshow, in which even human suffering looks a little trumped up, it succeeds at least on that count.

Sorkin has some fun with the script -- lots of zingers, lots of walking and talking -- and it is impressive how much historical detail Nichols managed to cram in without arousing the dreaded Redford eye-glaze. With the exception of Hoffman, however, the actors don't really get the chance to bring their characters to life; a couple of shots of Hanks alone, with his eyes welling over a highball, are supposed to be sufficient development of this sexist, lazy, driven Congressman's inner life.

By 1988 he has almost single-handedly raised the covert ops budget to $1 billion, arming the Afghan people with enough weaponry to smite the Red Army and then some, but leaving them nothing to rebuild their country. It's the "then some" that closes the movie on a more-than-ambivalent note; Wilson looks down on his colleagues -- accepting the first civilian honor from the clandestine services -- with a look of wary gratitude, almost regret. Then Hoffman returns the look with a pop of his eyes and the whole story -- the whole film -- clicks into place.

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