While its obvious intentions as Oscar bait are undeniable, it seems odd timing to release "Charlie Wilson's War," an intelligent, witty and adult-oriented comedy, on the same weekend as more obviously box-office friendly fare such as "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" and Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
Will "Charlie Wilson's War" survive a weekend in which four wide-release films hit the theatres and the widely acclaimed "Juno" begins to expand?
Sadly, I think not. It's sad, really, because while "Charlie Wilson's War" never quite becomes the insightful political comedy it wants to be, it's an entertaining film featuring award-worthy performances from Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman and a script by Aaron Sorkin ("The American President," "The West Wing") that's relatively faithful to historical accuracy while also maintaining Sorkin's gift for zingy, ensemble-oriented dialogue.
Based upon a 2003 book by late author George Criles, "Charlie Wilson's War" is the almost too strange to be true story of how a boozing, womanizing Texas Congressman named Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) assembled an unlikely team of influential characters that would generate enough support to allow the Afghan Mujahideen to turn back the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980's.
The real-life Wilson was widely known for his womanizing and boozing ways, as evidenced by the flick's reference to a Rudy Giuliani led investigation into the Congressman's alleged cocaine use that ultimately led to no charges mostly due to the fact that the only proven use was done outside U.S. jurisdiction. Arguably, while Wilson had a known interest in foreign affairs and social justice, his interest was inspired by his semi-indiscreet intimacies with conservative Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a wealthy and connected power-broker who arranges for Charlie to meet with Pakistan president Zia (Om Puri).
Up to this point, "Charlie Wilson's War" is an interesting yet relatively vanilla piece of filmmaking lacking that certain spark that will push it over the edge into truly dynamic filmmaking.
Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman as largely discarded CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, a disheveled, mouthy and rebellious operative who instantly connects to Charlie's desire to better arm the Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets and communism.
From his first minute onscreen, Hoffman ignites the screen with a humor and bravado that blends so beatifully with Hanks that Hanks' performance is instantly elevated and the two bounce off each other in what almost cries out to be an offbeat, political buddy flick.
While Charlie couldn't always escape his flawed personality, seen most clearly when he asks for alcohol from the President of the fundamentalist Muslim Pakistan, when he teams up wtih Gust suddenly it seems clear how these two nobodies could somehow join up, fund a war and even win the damn thing.
Directed by Mike Nichols ("Primary Colors"), "Charlie Wilson's War" faces the unenviable task of condensing a 500-page, historically detailed book into a two-hour flick. While the film definitely feels like it has gaps in the story, Sorkin and Nichols pace it beautifully and keep it remarkably faithful to the story and tone of Crile's book despite generally playing down Wilson's more party animal ways.
Unfortunately, the pic also plays down the undeniable connection between Wilson's successful $1,000,000,000 funding of the Mujahideen that, in effect, armed the very people the U.S. is now fighting today. While a closing statement by Wilson that "we changed the world, but fucked up the endgame" points at our failure to fund even a mere $1,000,000 in reconstruction that would have helped the nation rebound, the pic plays it considerably safer and never really makes the direct connection between then and now.
Hanks seems an odd choice for such a womanizing, boozing player, yet by pic's end Hanks has created a solid, dignified and funny portrait of a man who couldn't really manage his own life but somehow managed to save the world. Women in Wilson's world, even the intelligent and powerful ones, seem not much more than window-dressing. This is sadly true for Julia Roberts' Joanne Herring, who is only developed to the point that she serves to further Wilson's cause even as he furthers her own ultra-right wing Christian agenda.
It is Hoffman, however, who steals the show time and time again as the brash and confident CIA operative who helps Wilson build a bridge between all the disparate links, most notably forming a cooperative effort between the Jewish Israel and the Muslim Pakistan.
Secondary roles are largely under-developed, though Amy Adams (Golden Globe nominated for "Enchanted") shines as Wilson's beautiful yet very capable and loyal Executive Assitant. Om Puri is solid, as well, though Ned Beatty and Emily Blunt are largely wasted here.
Production design is somewhat off-putting, almost seeming out of a different era than the late 80's. The design becomes less off-putting by film's end and actually seems to further the notion that Wilson, despite all his flaws, had a gift for blending different cultures and making things happen that really never should have happened.
While I'm not quite convinced that "Charlie Wilson's War" was worthy of its Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, it does feature two award-worthy performances from Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman along with a remarkably relevand and important script as we try to find a way in this country to end current military operations in the Mideast.
While it's timing may be odd, "Charlie Wilson's War" is a rare cinematic gift from Hollywood for adults who crave a more sophisticated, intelligent comedy than typical Hollywood fare.