Charlie Wilson’s War

January 14, 2008

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In the early eighties Texas congressman Charlie Wilson funded an unprecedented defence against the Soviet Union by the people of Afghanistan. In Mike Nichols’ timely re-telling of the extraordinary events, Tom Hanks fills the cowboy boots of the sleazy-yet-breezy champion of the middle east. But what’s it trying to do to us?

The film begins with Wilson doing what all good congressman do: drinking whiskey in a Jacuzzi and doing blow with strippers in the back of a limo. It’s not until his major Conservative supporter Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) alerts him to the Soviet’s brutal occupation of Afghanistan that he gets governmental and funds a major covert operation to help them out. Advised by ferocious CIA spy Gust (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) the mission soon spirals out of control, and Charlie must face the grim consequences of his actions.

This is an unusual film. For whatever reason, political satire doesn’t often make it to the screen these days. In fact the closest thing to make real waves is probably something like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9:11, which says a lot about public acceptance of such material. Here it seems the message isn’t dressed up with comedy, rather conveniently the source of the story offers the opportunity for some side-tickling set-ups. Wilson’s War seems more akin to the underrated tobacco lobbyist comedy Thank You For Smoking, though despite a weightier subject matter Wilson’s impact is somewhat weaker.

The populist sheen doesn’t really do the whole business much good. Tom Hanks himself got the project off the ground, so we can’t really blame him for taking the lead- he does a fine job revelling in Wilson’s seedy image and is a pleasure to watch. But although we’re encouraged to sympathise with Charlie’s situation and genuine innocence by the final act, Hanks’ mainstream appeal and bear-like cuddliness among middle-aged women turns Wilson into a charming and somehow admirable character. Julia Roberts is hideously miscast, but she rarely isn’t so I’ll leave that one there.

“Thankfully Seymour-Hoffman strikes gold again, thoroughly enjoying his aggressive yet socially awkward and beleaguered spy. Alongside Hanks he completes a surprisingly formidable screen duo, the sharpest writing clearly reserved for their outrageous exchanges.”

It’s a real statement that Gust is assigned to Wilson’s mission simply to get rid of him for a while, when so much money and international risk rests on its success. You’ll scoff at the budgeting power of the ‘unheard of’ congressman and how the whole operation is conducted with no word from the top. That’s America for you, and it’s one argument that the tone of the movie lends itself to very well. Everything is a joke, so sometimes its hard to recognise the truth at the heart of the story- but that’s the point.

The farcical comedy style reflects the circus-like corruption it strives to expose, but perhaps most effective is the contrasts on display in the more sombre moments. The most striking of these images is Wilson’s visit to Pakistan, in which he visits a camp for families ruined by war. It is here the issues collide, and what starts out as the rich and selfish rallying against communism becomes Wilson’s genuine anguish for the injustice he is witnessing. This is of course his eventual downfall, and the identical opening and closing scenes tell a frustrating fable about Charlie Wilson’s naivety and attempts to find an end to an impossible dilemma.

Standing alone it’s a bright and witty comedy hit, dripping with irony and boasting some dark yet colourful lead performances. Obvious parallels to the current situation in Iraq make the timing of the film’s release appropriate, but it’s doubtful that the mode of delivery will clamp its moral to your conscience for anything more than a couple of days. But if they had gone via the profound political thriller route, would we really be paying any more attention?

THE CRUNCH

3.5 / 5  Russian helicopters blasted

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