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CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR(director: Mike Nichols; screenwriters: Aaron Sorkin/based on the book by George Crile; cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt; editors: John Bloom/Antonia Van Drimmelen; music: James Newton-Howard; cast: Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson), Julia Roberts (Joanne Herring), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gust Avrakotos), Amy Adams (Bonnie Bach), Ned Beatty (Doc Long), Emily Blunt (Jane Liddle), Om Puri (President Zia), Ken Stott (Zvi), John Slattery (Cravely, CIA department head), Denis O’Hare (Harold Holt), Brian Markinson (Paul Brown), Jud Tylor (Crystal Lee), Christopher Denham (Mike Vickers); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gary Goetzman/Tom Hanks; Universal Pictures; 2007)
“Gentle spoof of the behind-the-scenes look at recent history and at the Beltway crowd.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Mike Nichols (“Silkwood”/”Heartburn”/”Primary Colors”) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin breezily give us a skimpy history lesson that they adapt from George Crile’s, formerly of 60 Minutes, 2003 best-selling book. It’s about a slick playboy bachelor and boozer, a Democrat, liberal leaning, scandal-prone Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), and an out-of-favor crude but cunning CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and a brassy faith-based right-winger and high-living wealthy Houston blue blood socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), who all covertly get the US involved in supporting the occupied Afghanistan Mujahedeen (religious freedom fighters) against the mighty attacking Soviet Empire. It’s a war the Reagan administration only supported half-heartedly, fearing to get openly involved with a war against the Commies and heat up the cold war.

It opens in Las Vegas, 1980, and Wilson, Congressman from East Texas’ 2nd Congressional District, is soaking in the nude in a Caesar’s Palace hot tub with a Playboy Playmate (Jud Tylor), her sleazy manipulative shady boyfriend (Brian Markinson) and a pair of coke-snorting busty strippers, where he catches on the telly a Dan Rather 60 Minutes piece on the ongoing armed struggle between the Afghan Mujahedeen and the overwhelming force of the Red Army, and is inspired to use this as an opportunity to put a dent into the Soviet empire by arming the Afghans. Using his influence on the powerful Defense Appropriations committee, which oversees the funding for the Defense Department and the CIA, Wilson arranges it so that the $5 million currently being covertly funneled to the Afghans via the CIA be doubled. But soon finds out that the slight budget will not be enough in fighting the war, as he meets with the Pakistani head of state, President Zia (Om Puri), and learns the Afghan fighters need Stinger missiles to bring down the Soviet’s helicopters. Wilson uses his political smarts to slyly arrange for a great deal of money to go to the war without Congress being aware of it and he then brokers an unlikely top-secret deal with the Israelis and their Muslim enemies — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — to move their stockpile of Soviet weapons into the hands of the Mujahedeen (this way it won’t look like the Americans are funding the war).

To give credit only to these three with the take down of the USSR is hardly believable, but the Nichols film is entertaining and gives us enough of the surface Beltway story for us to dip into history, from a left-wing viewpoint, that is played more for the laughs than how actually sinister it is to observe the way the government works its foreign policy. It’s Hoffman’s film, as his wisecracking, working-class, street smarts agent with balls who can never fit in with the Ivy League “stuffed shirts” and “cake eaters” who make up the elites in the Clandestine Services, nevertheless winds up chief of South Asia Operations and has the know-how to help Wilson wage a successful war. The trouble is that sometimes when you get what you want, you later wish you didn’t get it. The filmmaker lays the blame on the nameless politicians who fucked-up the “end game,” and failed to provide aid to the poverty stricken Afghanistan in their time of great need after the war causing a vacuum for the religious fanatics to enter through the back door. Playing Monday morning quarterback after 9/11, it now sure seems that covertly arming the Mujahedeen wasn’t such a good idea as first thought by “Good Time Charlie.”

Wilson, viewed as one of the good guys who might be a womanizer but has a political conscience, retired from the House in 1996. The film spoofs the uptights as the bad guys, while those who know how to have fun are seen as the good guys. It’s not a very convincing assessment, but it’s what the filmmaker leaves us with in this crowd-pleasing and gentle spoof of the behind-the-scenes look at recent history and at the snarky Beltway crowd.

REVIEWED ON 12/22/2007 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”