First Impressions: Charlie Wilson’s War

Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War Charlie Wilson’s War, the new movie from Mike Nichols starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, tells the true story of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks), a hard drinking womanizer who helps fund a covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the early 80s. Over the course of a few hours, I had three distinct opinions of it.

Going in, I had a bad feeling. I don’t know why, but maybe it was because of the buzz that seemed to insist this was some kind of presumptive Oscar favorite long before anyone had even seen it. More than anything though, I think it was the tepid trailer stuffed to the gills with obvious pop tunes. The whole thing just felt flat.

Of course, you should never judge a movie by the trailer, ever, but even with an acknowledged weakness for Aaron Sorkin dialogue, I was worried and the opening scene didn’t do anything to make me feel better. It was one of those flashback setups that are getting so boring. Charlie Wilson is receiving a medal for his actions that are about to unfold over the course of the film and of course we’ll return to the same scene before the ending credits. Luckily this bit of business is brief and the movie gets pretty good pretty quickly.

The story follows Charlie from ne’er-do-well to secret hero and it’s a very likeable and entertaining movie that goes down smoothly with just a little bit of bite. Fortunately, the obvious pop tunes from the trailer are nowhere to be found.

I should add however, if you didn’t care for West Wing or don’t like Sorkin’s stylized patter, you might not find a lot to like with this one. I’m a sucker for Sorkin and hearing his dialogue delivered on screen by an excellent cast was a lot of fun. There was some very funny stuff. It’s serious business, but the dialogue is funny as hell. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the CIA agent Wilson enlists to help him was especially good. He was born to read this kind of material. By the way, can that guy get some sort of special award for three superb and completely different performances in one year? He should.

Hanks was his typical likeable self minus a lot of the earnestness that plagues his more serious roles. Julia Roberts was just ok for the most part, and I say this as a guy who generally finds her pretty enjoyable. She plays the Texas millionairess with a knack for raising money for her pet causes.

My third mood shift on the movie happened after it was over. I found out that Sorkin’s original 145 page script had largely been gutted. I haven’t read it yet myself, but apparently it was a more hard hitting look at the story. For those who don’t remember their current events, we covertly trained, armed and supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. When they succeeded in driving out the Soviet Union, the ensuing political vacuum became a breeding ground for elements that became Al Qaeda and…well…you know who they are.

It’s a little disappointing to learn the movie may have been defanged of some of its political overtones. There are some serious questions to be asked about US foreign policy that I think are present in the movie’s current form, but it sounds like they were much more pronounced in the original script. The result is a lighter cautionary tale rather than some kind of excoriating exposé on our government’s role in the world. I’m guessing it was an economic move by the studio who looked at one Iraq film after another bomb and might’ve had something to do with the long wait before the movie was made available to press types. I wonder if they filmed Sorkin’s script but decided to re-edit it afterwards.

Mainstream types who don’t want to be bothered with too strong of a message and who like lots of witty banter will probably go for Charlie Wilson’s War, especially if they like Hanks. The extremes at both ends of the political spectrum are probably going to be hopping mad. The right will see the movie as blaming the United States for 9/11 and the left will be disappointed the movie doesn’t go farther in holding our government more responsible for its actions. Personally, I thought it was imperfect, but I liked it quite a bit. I’m a little disappointed tnowing what might have been however and we’ll see if my opinion changes when I read the screenplay.

Charlie Wilson’s War opens on December 25, 2007.

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