Charlie Wilson’s War: Where did it all go wrong?

Our next Aaron Sorkin exploration…

Rating: 2 stars (out of 4)

The trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War and its IMDB page promise two very different movies.  The latter will remind you of the tremendous amount of talent that has been gathered in front of and behind the camera, but the former promises only a breezy, lazy film about a potentially weighty topic.  Believe the trailer.

War, based off George Crile’s book of the same name, chronicles Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a Playboy representing a district in Texas that doesn’t want anything, and his covert funding of Afghans after the invasion of the Soviets in 1979.  Director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin strive for comedy, not drama, though, but it strangely all feels muted.  I would have preferred the film to not be so light-hearted, but that would have been easier to take if it was funnier.  War is borderline-competent, but hardly inspiring.

The cause of the Afghans is brought to Charlie’s attention by Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), who, apparently, has enough time on her hands to be concerned about such things.  No other motivation is provided for her.  Charlie, it turns out, sits in a powerful position in Congress, and with one phone call he can double the U.S. budget for Afghanistan.  Joanne wants more, though, and so before long he’s on a plane to Pakistan and walking through refugee camps, which finally gets his attention.  The final player is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a CIA operative who seems permanently miscast in his role (Gust, not Philip).

I mentioned before that a fair amount of talent was assembled for this flick—a jaw-dropping amount, really, when you think about it.  Even the cinematographer and composer have been nominated for Oscars, and when you line up Hanks, Roberts, and Hoffman with Nichols (Closer) and Sorkin, you expect greatness.  Sadly, everyone here has been better, especially Sorkin, whose screenplay and storyline don’t measure up to his other pronounced successes, both in film (The American President, A Few Good Men) and television (“The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”).  There are chuckles to be had, and there’s nothing embarrassing, but it’s not nearly as funny as I expected, and Sorkin removes almost altogether the dramatic undercurrent that gave his other work heft.  Likewise, Hanks, Roberts, and Hoffman are all fine, but they’ve done better work—not coincidentally, I imagine, because they’ve been pushed harder elsewhere.

Since the roles are basically cut-outs, the stars were just included for box office receipts and, with the possible exception of Hoffman, could have been played by just about anyone.  Roberts’s blatantly gratuitous bikini shot falls under the same money-seeking category; Nichols doesn’t even bother to be subtle about that or try to justify it with a reason.

War moves forward reasonably, and there’s a story beneath the sheen, but the ending is far from dramatic—though, I suppose, the film isn’t supposed to be.  It’s all here, as shown faithfully by the trailer.  The first scene shows us Wilson in a hot tub with naked women and drugs, and within about 60 seconds, his attention is drawn to a television report about the war in Afghanistan.  The rest of the film plays out just the way you’d expect it to, replete with belly dancers, assistants who look like models (including Amy Adams, who’s much too gorgeous to be relegated to such a small role), and heavy liquor served at ten AM.  It’s all a bit act, but the funniest parts (such as an exchange between Hanks and Hoffman about U.S. policy in Afghanistan) were already shown in the trailer.  It just doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would have taken very long to make; and before you know it, it’s done, clocking in at just over an hour and a half long.

Curiously, at the very end of the film, perhaps in an attempt to place Charlie’s actions into context, Nichols and Sorkin give us a hint about the unintended consequences of Charlie’s actions, and suggests where we went wrong.  The expression on Hanks’s face at his recognition ceremony—and, of course, the postscript—implies dissatisfaction with what he did.  Hey, Aaron—there’s the drama.  That’s what I wish this film had explored.

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