There's something quite remarkable about “Charlie Wilson's War"; it manages to portray an unknown political story from the 1980's about the biggest covert war in history that brought down the Soviet Empire not only with insight and intelligence, but with humour, wit and fun. The last attribute is most telling because the subject matter is anything but fun. By focusing the story around the real life congressman Charlie Wilson (played here brilliantly by Tom Hanks), director Mike Nichols crafts a film that on the one hand tells a fascinating story of political intrigue while making it light through Wilson's playboy lifestyle and loveable antics. It helps too that the cast is rounded out by a never better Julia Roberts and a tough-as-bolts Philip Seymour Hoffman who manages to steal several scenes with some razor-sharp, dead-pan dialogue (save his introductory scene where he gets quite angry; it's spectacular). This film is a triumph from start to finish, telling a great story and providing an insight in to history of which most of us would not have been aware.
The film starts with the ending; we see Charlie being awarded the “Honoured Colleague" from the defence force. We're told his achievement has outstripped any that have come before it, allowing him to be the first civilian to ever achieve this award. Yet, in his eyes, Charlie seems distant and sad; as if he's grateful for the award but aware that this isn't the end of the story. It's a tribute to Tom Hanks’ acting ability that he conveys so much in this sequence, suggesting that although this is the end of the film, we know that there's more going on than meets the eye; it's not until the end that we realise why he looks like that. It's an unusual way to start the film but it's brilliant as we get the feeling that the victory may be bittersweet for Wilson and we want to know why.
We then move backwards to 1980 and we're introduced to Charlie while he's having a party with friends in Vegas. Befitting Charlie's playboy lifestyle, he's naked in a spa with two strippers, a playboy cover girl and a male friend who wants Charlie's help to get a Dallas-style TV series off the ground. This little escapade, as with many others, at first comes back to bite Charlie when questions of scandal and impropriety are raised back in Washington. But later on, it becomes the perfect cover for his instigation of a covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; with the media so busy looking around in his personal life, they don't take him seriously enough to investigate his more weighty actions with the CIA and other nations in the Middle East. After being convinced by wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (a perfectly cast Julia Roberts) to visit the President of Pakistan, Charlie trundles off not taking it seriously, until the President makes it quite clear that they are dealing with a grave situation in Afghanistan and the United States is treating it like a joke but not providing enough funding in the war budget. At the insistence of the President, Charlie visits the refugee camps in Pakistan and is horrified but what he sees. He visits the US consulate in Pakistan to find out what the people need to help them fight the Soviets and gets a rather uninterested response from the CIA representative there. Charlie flies back to Washington to demand a meeting with the Director of the CIA, but instead meets Gust Avrakatos (Hoffman), an expert in Afghanistan who wants to kill communists but has been frustrated by not being given the support. It's music to his ears when Charlie tells him he wants to give him whatever he needs to make this happen, and together with Herring, the three mastermind a covert war which grows larger and larger with each passing year until it climaxes with the Soviet withdrawal in Afghanistan, and then subsequently the fall of the Soviet Empire.
The warning, and topical theme that comes from this movie is right at the end. Charlie, and the US, are successful in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan without drawing attention to themselves. However, Gust warns Charlie that if they leave without educating the Afghans that it will become a breeding ground for terrorists and descend the country in to civil war, again. In a crucial scene, Charlie requests only a million dollars to set up a school in Afghanistan to educate the locals, but he's met with a negative response: “Who gives cares about a school in Afghanistan?" It is this short-sightedness that has had ramifications for the world in subsequent decades, and Gust's warning has become reality. Charlie sums up America's actions quite succinctly: “We go in, we give people hope, we succeed in driving away the enemies, and then we leave. But you know what? That ball keeps bouncing. " This is the film's main message and its a very strong one; had the US heeded the warning signs then and not been so short-sighted, the world might be in a different place right now. Then, when we get to the climax which is a replay of the opening scene, we finally understand the look on Charlie's face when he's accepting the award. He knows they have to do more, and getting an award seems trivial by comparison.
The manner in which this story is told is much more positive and noble than what I was expecting; Charlie is actually doing this for a just cause. This motivation pulls you as an audience member straight in to his plight because you're keen to see exactly how he uses his wit and charm to manipulate people in to giving him what he needs to get this war off the ground. By far the best sequences in the movie are between Hanks and Hoffman as their characters discuss strategy. Charlie is the man with the money who wants to help, but he has no idea. Gust is the man with the ability, but needs the support. Together, they're a perfect match. And even though Charlie is funding Gust's enterprise, Gust is not afraid to stand up to Charlie to get what he wants, even if that means being crass and insulting to Middle Eastern world leaders, to fellow colleagues or even to Charlie himself if Gust feel he needs to make a point. As a result, you're watching real people deal with an insane situation which makes it all the more believable.
Tom Hanks is brilliant in this role; it might not be his best work but it's something of a surprise. We haven't seen him play this ethically-challenged playboy character before, but he does it with such charm and gusto that you wonder why he never did it before. Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the show as Gust Avrakatos. Starting with his stellar opening scene where he tells his boss to go f$%# himself for not giving him a posting he wanted, Hoffman delivers all of his dialogue in such an intelligent, fast and deadpan manner that he's totally engaging from start to finish. Julia Roberts does very well as the beautiful, intelligent and tough Houston socialite Joanne Herring who is the one who gets the ball rolling with Charlie. It's more of a supporting role as both Hanks and Hoffman take up most of the screen time but she makes her presence felt nonetheless.
"Charlie Wilson's War" is an intelligent piece of work that also manages to entertain. It might actually prompt you to find out more about this true story, but at the very least, it'll give you something to talk about.
For the original review, click this link: http://www.allaboutmovies.net/dvdreviewcharliewilsonswar.htm
Alex DeMattia is the lead DVD reviewer at the film/DVD review web site http://www.allaboutmovies.net