Tuesday 18th January 2022

Charlie Wilson's War (15)
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Reviewed by: Dave Witt

In 1979 the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan with 100,000 troops, 1,800 tanks and hundreds of helicopters. The international response to this invasion into the highly strategic area was swift and stern: grain export sanctions, and really serious threats to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Charlie Wilson's War, based on the book by the late journalist George Crile, tells the story of three people in particular who did not deem that response to be sufficient.

Two fat guys drinking at 11 o'clock in the morning. This country...
Two fat guys drinking at 11 o'clock in the morning. This country...

The basic premise is this: Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a good-life-loving, whisky-sipping, bed-hopping Texas Congressman, surrounded by beautiful female staff and known as "Good Time Charlie"; he is benevolently indulged by the voters of his congressional district, who don't ask for much more than him diverting as much funding their way as he can. Co-opted/seduced by the rich and influential Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) into saving the poor innocents of Afghanistan, he uses his position on the Defence Appropriations Subcommittee to engineer the channelling of vast sums of American cash – via such unlikely countries as Israel and Pakistan – into the country as weaponry for the indigenous fighters. He's aided in this task by Gust Avrokotos (the ever-outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman), a surly and pugnacious CIA officer who wants to get as many Russians killed as possible. Improbably, the plan succeeds and the Russians are defeated. Even more improbably, it's almost entirely true.

Scripted by Aaron Sorkin, creator of the West Wing and no stranger to snappy dialogue or political intrigue, the film flies through some incredibly complex geopolitical situations with an impressively deft touch, and despite the density of the subject matter and the background, it is definitively not boring. The enterprise is helped enormously by the dazzling central performances from Hanks, Roberts and Hoffman, all of whom clearly relished the colour and depth of their characters. Hanks is effortlessly charming, a man of obvious yet affable flaws and a disarming mental acuity; Roberts is smooth and a little intimidating as the beguiling, strongly-principled (where it suits) power-broker driving the operation; and Hoffman lends tremendous charisma to the distinctly un-charismatic Gust (and in turn gets most of the best lines).

And good lines there are a-plenty, as the big three wisecrack their way through the bulk of the film relating to the setup and execution of the big plan. Unfortunately, the film treats the impact of their actions with the same light touch as much that has gone before, and rather glides through events that demand more thorough dissection. This ultimately defuses much of the film's purpose, which was surely to tell an amazing (mostly) true story in an entertaining and easily-comprehensible manner; the film struggles to lend sufficient gravitas to the proceedings to the extent that it ultimately come across as little more than a particularly witty sitcom, rather than a momentous historical episode that simply must be seen to be believed.

The film is also disappointingly unequivocal; there is little in the way of antagonism or impediment along the chosen course, and never debate about the motives of those involved, or whether what they're doing is necessarily the right thing to do (or even a particularly good idea). Such mention there is of the law of unintended consequences is as slight as most of what has gone before; considering that there's a good chance that the long term result of Wilson's actions was to train and arm the future Taliban and many al-Qaeda operatives, a little more moral ambivalence would have been welcome.

It's a pity that the film is unable to deliver on its bold premise; the story is compelling, the dialogue is first rate and the characters and performances are larger-than-life, and all the better for it. All of which lends it the air of another missed opportunity: it's thoroughly entertaining for its surprisingly brief duration, but afterwards you'll be left wondering where the important bit was.

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Length: 97 minutes
Certificate: 15
Official Site:
IMDB Link:
Release Date: 11th January 2008

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