Thursday, August 7, 2014

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Director: Mike Nichols                                   Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Film Score: James Newton Howard                Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Starring: Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Amy Adams

Charlie Wilson’s War is one of those films that should have been huge. Clearly, however, the Bush administration had something to do with limiting the advertising and promotion of the film, through outright coercion or from fear of reprisals. In the first place it’s simply a great piece of cinema. Aaron Sorkin, who specializes in this kind of political banter, wrote the screenplay from George Crile’s book of the same name. Mike Nichols, who has been working the line between comedy and tragedy for his entire career does a great job, as do the all-star cast assembled by Hanks’ production company, Play-Tone. What’s so bad that Bush and his warmongers would want to suppress it? The fact that the U.S. not only supplied arms to the Taliban to fight the Soviet Union, but that we also supplied them with a reason to hate us once the Russians had withdrawn, that it was actually U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in the early eighties that directly led to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The most chilling moment in the film comes from our vantage point today, when Congress denies Charlie Wilson a million dollars for schools. After giving Afghanis hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons, our politicians simply abandoned them. But that’s just business as usual in the utterly corrupt and morally bankrupt U.S. government.

The film revolves around Charlie Wilson, a U.S. Congressman and a man of simple pleasures: as long as he is surrounded by beautiful women and alcohol, he’s happy. He is shown in the opening receiving an award from the clandestine services for his part in defeating the Soviet Union. From there the film jumps back to 1980 and Tom Hanks, as Wilson, hearing Dan Rather talk to Afghanis about their need for weapons. Since he is on the appropriations committee for covert operations, he begins trading favors to get the Afghanis more money for weapons. At the same time Philip Seymour Hoffman, a C.I.A. station chief or so he thought, is being demoted to the Afghan desk because of his abrasive personality and smashes the plate glass window of his boss before he leaves his office. Hanks wants to talk to the most senior man he can get about Afghanistan and winds up with Hoffman instead. But it turns out Hoffman is just the man, if someone wants to actually do something. Since the committee for covert operations has no oversight from Congress Hanks simply doubles the budget, from five million to ten, but Hoffman tells him that’s a drop in the bucket. And from there it’s secret arms deals, fund raising from the fifth wealthiest woman in Texas, Julia Roberts, and Hanks’ bevy of beauties that includes the brainy Amy Adams to help him get the job done.

The thing that absolutely makes the film is Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. He’s a master at comedic repartee, something he honed in his television series The West Wing, and which is indispensable in a film that is mostly about people talking. And there are certain set pieces that are incredibly memorable: Hoffman in his boss’s office, Hanks talking with the Pakistani president, Hoffman in Hank’s office with the whiskey bottle, and a half dozen more. Add to that Mike Nichols, who began his career with The Graduate and never looked back, and it’s a recipe for success. Tom Hanks does his usual solid job, but the glue that holds everything together is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He charges across the screen, an idealist drowning in a world of politics where nothing can get done. And while the film was otherwise snubbed at the Academy Awards, Hoffman was nominated for best supporting actor. Julia Roberts also does a great job as the rich ally in Hank’s pocket, sexual relationship between them is nonchalant and the two of them are charming together. Amy Adams is also very strong as Hank’s conscience, and would go on to work with Hoffman again in Doubt. Other notable support includes Ned Beatty, Emily Blunt, John Slattery, Om Puri and Denis O’Hare. Charlie Wilson’s War is simply a tremendous political biopic that delivers equal doses of uplift and shame, a cautionary tale for what our country is going through today.

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