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  • 15
  • Biography, Drama
  • 2007
  • 95 mins

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War


In this historical comedy, three unlikely partners-in-politics bring about the end of the Soviet Union - with repercussions that will ultimately damage their own country. Mike Nichols directs, from a screenplay by Aaron ('The West Wing') Sorkin


Larger-than-life characters, memorably funny lines, and a story totally unbelievable and yet almost entirely true - that is Charlie Wilson's War, Mike Nichols' dramatisation of the three unlikely figures who together helped spearhead a massive (but covert) US operation in 1980s Afghanistan, leading to the ignominious withdrawal of Russian troops, and then to the collapse of the Soviet Union... and eventually to the mess of today's Afghanistan.

When we first meet Charlie Wilson (Hanks), a Texan Democrat Congressman with a long line of credit in political favours and a love of booze and women, he is in Las Vegas, sharing a hot tub (and cocaine) with a shonky producer, a 'Playboy' playmate and two strippers. Yet the hedonistic Lothario also has an interest in the plight of Afghanistan under Soviet occupation, and his interest will only be further aroused by Joanne Herring (Roberts), a super-rich Texas socialite and fervent anti-communist, who knows exactly how to persuade him to meet Pakistan's President Zia (Puri) and to see the refugee camps for himself.

Convinced that the US should be secretly bankrolling the Afghani resistance, Charlie begins work raising covert funds for war through the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Together with no-nonsense, blue-collar CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), Charlie concocts a plan to smuggle state-of-the-art Russian arms into the hands of the Mujahideen - a plan that will require Israel to work with her sworn enemies Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, Joanne has special influence over the politicians at home, Gust has the all the right contacts in the secret services, and Charlie has a Texan belly dancer in his address book.

Charlie Wilson's War is a story of scandal, big hair and Reagan-era bravado, but it is also (like all great history) a story about the present day, and about the lessons that are never learned. It opens with the image of an Afghani Mujahideen, silhouetted against the moonlight, who first prays, and then shoulders a rocket launcher and fires it upon an unseen enemy - but whether that enemy is a Russian invader of the 1980s, or a Coalition soldier of the 21st century, is left tantalisingly unclear. Afghanistan's armed and trained freedom fighters of yesteryear are today's fanatical insurgents - and while the film plays most of its history for satirical laughs, with a focus on Charlie's sexual shenanigans and political machinations, it leaves little doubt of the intimate links between then and now, as Charlie's genuine (and largely uncelebrated) victory turns Pyrrhic through US mishandling of the aftermath.

Working from journalist George Crile's 2003 book of the same name, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has produced a masterful script that combines insight, wit and political nous into a madcap global adventure which never forgets its own underlying seriousness. It compresses almost a decade's worth of complex geopolitical manoeuvrings into 90-odd minutes that are easily digestible while still offering plenty of food for thought. Fans of television's 'The West Wing' will be well used to Sorkin's trademark in high-brow, scatter-gun dialogue, and there is plenty of that on offer here - but what has gone, and what is welcome by its absence, is Sorkin's tendency to put his political heroes on a pedestal. His three main characters, though all idealists in their different ways, are also grounded in a reality that prevents them from becoming ideological saints. If anything, the keynote here is cynicism, as dreams for a better future are realised by any means, and fatally fudged in the final act.

Whether Hanks manages to slough off his everyman image for this most caddish of roles is debatable, but he is certainly charming enough, while Roberts pulls off with aplomb the unenviable task of acting older than her age, and Hoffman steals every scene with his line in simmering disgruntled menace. Together (although all three rarely appear together) they make for an engagingly odd trio, bouncing off one another's differences to achieve a common goal. Mission accomplished, as a later US President would put it - although this film at least has the foresight to grasp that it ain't over till it's over.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Jud Taylor, Ned Beatty, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Emily Blunt, Om Puri, Ken Stott, Amy Adams
  • Director: Mike Nichols
  • Screen Writer: Aaron Sorkin
  • Writer (Book): George Crile
  • Producer: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
  • Photographer: Stephen Goldblatt
  • Composer: James Newton Howard

In a nutshell

In Mike Nichols' smart satire of US engagement with the Middle East, history is shown to repeat itself as both tragedy and farce.

by Anton Bitel

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