Posted as part of an intermittent series of espionage-related cinema leading up to the release of the new James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ later this year
How best to describe ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’? The “based on a true story” tag-line screams biopic, but it’s more like ‘Wag the Dog’ with a covert war instead of a stage-managed one, or ‘Rambo III’ with more in the way of strippers and hot tubs.
This is how we meet our … uh, let’s just go with “hero” and place all moral considerations in cold storage for 98 minutes. He’s the Charlie of the title (Tom Hanks), he’s a Texan congressman and his principle interests appear to be women, whisky and … actually, I think we got done with his interests at women and whisky. He’s hanging out in a penthouse apartment with some – not to be judgemental here, but let’s call it like it is – lowlifes. High-rolling lowlifes, but lowlifes all the same. His choice of company comes back to haunt him later.
It’s the 1980s, the Russkies are in Afghanistan and Wilson is swiftly coerced by hifalutin society lady Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) to help the Afghanis out in the name of God and country and … well, mainly God. Which he proceeds to do, with the aid of disenfranchised CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Avrakotos is given an equally memorable introduction, effectively torpedo-ing his career prospects by telling his boss to go fuck himself and vandalising the fellow’s office into the bargain.
And while Mike Nichols’s film focuses on Wilson wheeling and dealing, and Avrakotos belligerently out to hammer the Red Menace, it’s fast, funny and scabrously satirical, Aaron Sorkin’s script zinging with the razoer-sharp dialogue for which he’s renowned. But all too often Nichols and Sorkin wear their hearts on their sleeves and the review-o-meter dips from “pretty good” to mediocre. Wilson’s transformation from political player to humanitarian never quite rings true. A visit to a refugee camp on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border wants to deliver the same howl of outrage as the last half of ‘The Constant Gardener’, but doesn’t make the grade. An apposite moment, here, to mention Stephen Goldblatt’s flat and utilitarian cinematography: he never fully integrates with any scene, visually parlaying the viewer into the thick of events. The film retains a slightly bland sheen throughout; you’re always aware that you’re watching a film, and that’s never a sign of success.
The cast is top-notch, though: Hanks and Roberts are clearly having big fun, while Hoffman doesn’t just steal scenes but walk away with the whole movie. Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Rachel Nichols, Om Puri, Ken Stott, Peter Gerety and Ned Beatty all get their moment in front of the camera (even if, in some cases, it is only a moment: Blunt in particular is wasted).
A handful of set-pieces can hold themselves up to anything in Nichols’s distinguished (if, of late, somewhat hit-and-miss) filmography, particularly Wilson and Avrakotos’s first meeting, played out against the revelation that Wilson is being stalked by bad press and a possible subpoena due to the aforementioned lowlife company; it’s beautifully paced, laugh-out-loud funny, with enough entrances and exits to invite comparison with a Brian Rix farce.
And yet … and yet … ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ never fully coheres. As a satire (how the Americans armed Afghanistan: a timely tale of ulterior motives and irresponsibility!), it pulls its punches. As a political drama, it’s a little too glib to deliver any real insight. As a thriller, it keeps its protagonists away from any element of danger, thereby failing to generate tension. As an exercise in mapping out the contours of conspiracy, it’s never convincingly labyrinthine enough.
All told, that first paragraph ‘Wag the Dog’ comparison arguably sums it up: like Barry Levinson’s film, made ten years earlier, it takes a terrific concept and a powerhouse cast, delivers some genuinely amusing moments but squanders so much potential through its inability to decide what it wants to be.