Adapted from 60 Minutes producer George Crile's nonfiction bestseller of the same title, Charlie Wilson's War tells the story of a relatively obscure Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) who, with the encouragement of a conservative socialite (Julia Roberts) and the help of a disgruntled spook (Philip Seymour Hoffman), spurs an increased U.S. involvement in helping the mujahideen kick the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, thus setting up the end of the Cold War and, in a law of unintended consequences that's as much a primary subject of the film as anything, paving the way for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But enough of that: Is this really the first time Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have been in a movie together? Fitting that those two icons — who came of age in the age of Reagan — should come together in a movie that isn't only set in the 1980s but seems like an '80s movie.
Charlie Wilson's War is the kind of coherent, classically directed prestige comedy Hollywood was pretty good at back then, when movies such as Tootsie or Broadcast News could make you laugh and make you think and pick up Oscar nominations along the way. Hollywood product these days is more compartmentalized — the Oscar bait takes itself more seriously while the comedies are on a lowbrow race to the bottom. So, in that way, Charlie Wilson's War is a welcome blast from the past. If it's not as serious as it wants to be, it's still a lot more serious than Crash or The Kingdom and much more entertaining.
This literate political comedy isn't exactly unprecedented in its throwback qualities. It also rhymes with a couple of similarly pitched political comedies from the '90s: The American President and Primary Colors. No surprise there, as writer of the former (Aaron Sorkin, creator of TV's The West Wing) and the director of the latter (Mike Nichols) are the filmmaking team behind Charlie Wilson's War.
Sorkin's feel for inside politics is reflected here: One reason Wilson was able to do what he did, the film suggests, was that he had a safe district, which allowed him to vote whichever way, build up favors, and then cash them in for his pet cause.
Politically, Charlie Wilson's War doesn't fit into the neat Hollywood liberal box you might suspect. It doesn't come across as a movie against war or even against covert intervention in the affairs of other countries. Rather, it comes out against an unprincipled lack of follow-through, which might make it a John McCain movie in the context of the current election.
The punch-in-the-gut denouement suggests a government willing to spend a billion to blow something up but uninterested in spending a million to put it back together, with the likes of Osama bin Laden at the end of those screwed-up priorities.
But taking a long view of geopolitics isn't the only thing this juicy comedy has on the brain. It also strikes out against personal moralizing in politics. Wilson is a fiend for booze and women who may or may not use cocaine in hot tubs with strippers but most definitely has an illicit affair with the younger daughter of a constituent. And yet, the movie suggests, none of these foibles prevent him from being an effective or even well-meaning public servant. Sorkin, who has had his own problems and has written them into his work (see the short-lived series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), can relate to this imperfection. I bet Rudy Giuliani can too.
Charlie Wilson's War