- on Saturday, 01 May 2010 23:49
- by Frank Wilkins
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There's a bitter irony casting a pall over one of this year's smartest and most entertaining films. Not one that's likely to ruin the experience of watching Charlie Wilson's War however. In fact, our knowledge of Afghanistan's role in the events of 9/11, coupled with the way director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin handle their closing statement; make for an interesting and quite impactful footnote to the closing scenes of the film.
We know the Afghans triumphed over the Soviet Red Army in the '80s, eventually pushing the Ruskies from their country. In fairly short order, the Berlin Wall would come down, followed by the collapse of the entire Soviet Empire. But what many don't know is that the trail of breadcrumbs would lead back to a fast-talkin', wheelin'-dealin' congressman from Texas named Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks). Wilson was inspired to action by a rich Houston socialite, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) who, in addition to being one of the wealthiest people in the Lone Star state at the time, oddly bore a Texas-sized grudge against the scourge of communism.
Wilson's position on numerous congressional subcommittees allow the charming but astute politician along with Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a boisterous, blue-collar CIA agent to convince congress to increase the CIA's funding of covert operations in Afghanistan. The money was going directly to the Mujahideen freedom fighters through third parties a la Iran/Contra - to mask U.S. involvement. At this point in the film, anyone with even the slightest bit of knowledge of world history begins to see the delicious irony unfolding from this trail of events. Nichols and Sorkin walk precariously on the edge of subtlety as they give the audience a mere wink at the impending turn of events. A slip up here might have smacked of heavy-handedness, but the two present it like the experts they are.
Hanks does his Wilson perfectly. He's a womanizing, hard partying, lover of the drink, yet he's still endearing to the audience. A bit LBJ-ish in stature and import, he uses his mastery of the English language although heavily tinged with Texas colloquialisms and charming wit to finagle his agenda through the proper congressional channels. It's easy to see how a colleague with clandestine intentions could so easily have his way. Certainly most actors would have taken Wilson over the top, reducing him to an unconvincing buffoon. But in the hands of Hanks, he's as loveable as Santa Claus.
Roberts plays Herring as persnickety glam. She exudes the propriety of a Scarlett O'Hara, yet is not above stooping to Courtney Love to get her way. As she enters the room flanked by a pair of greyhounds, it's not difficult to see why Wilson would abandon his discretions and party affiliations - in favor of hastening her anti-communist desires through the bureaucracy. Their hinted-at affair is tastefully handled and never feels gratuitous or cartoon-y.
As good as Hanks and Roberts are, it's Hoffman that steals the show as the late Avrakotos. He is shrewd, gruff, and rambunctious - a hothead with an agenda and a means. Capable of intimidating his way through any situation, Avrakotos is the physical embodiment of the maxim, "where there's a will there's a way." It's a pleasure seeing Hoffman ply his craft to yet another memorable character. He's one of the best actors in Hollywood right now, and in this role, he never let's us forget that fact.
At a brisk 97 minutes, Charlie Wilson's War is about a quarter-hour too short. But then again, the purpose is not to diagram the intricacies of the inner-workings of governmental bureaucracy although Nichols has actually made that quite interesting here. The plot unfolds with the singular intent of setting-up that aforementioned wink, that cleverly disguised nudge in the closing scene that prompts us all to be prepared to stick around and do the job right, lest our own weapons, materiel and training be used against us in the future. And if that admirable message gets lost in the shuffle, it's a bonus that everything else in the film is so darn entertaining.