Saturday, May 3, 2008

Film Review: Charlie Wilson's War

"Charlie Wilson's War"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Before watching Mike Nichols' "Charlie Wilson's War" I thought it was going to be a biting political satire aimed at exposing pointless bureaucracy, corrupt politicians and needless wars. While there are some elements of that in Aaron Sorkin's (creator of TV's "The West Wing") script, ultimately the film becomes too gentle and loses some of its nerve thus not making the strong political points it wanted to.

The script was inspired by the book "Charlie Wilson's War:The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History" written by George Crile, based on supposedly actual events. There actually is a Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman who helped end the Cold War by making sure the CIA aided the people of Afghanistan fight off the Soviet Union.

Charlie Wilson, as played by Tom Hanks, may not seem like the likely hero. He drinks too much, takes drugs and mixes company with Playboy models and strippers. Yet, despite his unprofessional behavior, he seems to understand issues and the way government works. He truly wants to do good and bring about an end to the Cold War. Which leads one to wonder, how could a man lead such a self-destructive lifestyle and still be knowledgeable about facts?

Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman co-star as a wealthy right-wing Texas socialite , specifically the 6th wealthiest woman in Texas and Hoffman as a CIA agent with a bit of a temper problem.

It seems since winning her Oscar Julia Roberts has yet to do any work of real substance. Her best role since winning the Oscar 7 years ago for her performance in "Erin Brockovich" may have been in Nichols' previous film "Closer". In "Charlie Wilson's War" she seems to be phoning in her performance. Aside from an accent, what great detail did she go into to flesh out this character?

Hoffman seems like a caricature. He's mostly the smart-alec, wise-cracking buddy. Somehow he managed to win an Oscar nomination for his performance here for "best supporting actor" when his magnificent performance in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" went unnoticed.

Hanks is likable in the title role and his charisma picks up the film a bit and makes it somewhat watchable.

Director Nichols is a very funny man. I enjoy his work with Elaine May but for some reason I'm rarely, if ever, fully involved in his comedies. I feel his dramatic films such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Closer" are far better films then "What Planet Are You From?" and this movie. He just has not been able to find a comedy which allows him to utilize his gifts and insight in comedy. Even among his better comedies such as "Working Girl" and "The Graduate".

The film's ultimate goal is to draw a line between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the current situation between the U.S. and Afghanistan and now the American government did not finish the job it started by not funding reconstruction efforts. This, the film suggest, is what fueled anti-American sentiment in the region. Now, while this may very well be true, the film doesn't offer these links until the end of the film. If Nichols and Sorkin really wanted to hit this message home they should have made a great effort to exploit the connection. And even so, what does it suggest can be done now?

"Charlie Wilson's War" despite much praise by critics, comes off feeling slight to me. It never fully engaged me and I never felt the film approached its subject in the most compelling and more importantly, funny way. There are some laughs to be found in the film, but coming from Mike Nichols you'd expect more.