Saturday, January 12, 2008

Film Review: Charlie Wilson's War

In the early 1980's, cocaine-snorting, skirt-chasing, hard-drinking U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), after seeing a CBS special on the war in Afghanistan between the Mujahideen and the Soviets, decides to use his position on a Defence sub-committee to double the covert-ops budget for Afghanistan from a paltry $5 million to an only mildly less paltry $10 million. This sets off a chain of events which sees Charlie team up with the slightly off-kilter millionairess Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and wildcard C.I.A. operative Gust (pronounced 'Gus') Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and their combined efforts help turn around the war in Afghanistan and end the Cold War.

With a creative team that includes Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) behind it, as well as two of the biggest stars in the world in front of the camera, and the great supporting actor of the past decade filling out the team, Charlie Wilson's War was always going to have a lot of expectations heaped on it and, for the most part, it meets them. Hanks and Roberts are very good in their respective roles, with Hanks being particularly charming, and Sorkin's script is filled with the witty one-liners that have characterised his TV work. Though it is missing the zip and zing of his other work, partly due to the slightly sluggish editing and partly due to the performers not having the rapid-fire pace required, it's still very fun to listen to the characters talk and when it gets it right, such as a sequence in which Hoffman has to keep entering and exiting Wilson's office while he talks to his staff about a potentially damaging scandal, it works very well. It's also quite well-structured, allowing the audience to digest all the political machinations before getting into the actual Afghanistan scenes and it all zips along to the, slightly rushed, conclusion.

Though Hanks is great in the title role, I couldn't help but think that the film should have been called Gust Avrakotos' War since, unsurprisingly, the stand-out performance of the film is that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a gruff, anti-James Bond spy he steals every scene he's in and it’s no coincidence that the laughs don't really start until he appears, making a big impact by smashing the window of his boss' office with a hammer, and the film doesn't kick into gear until he meets up with Hanks, at which point they spark off each other brilliantly and every line from Hoffman's mouth becomes a nugget of comedy gold. It's a flawless comedic performance but one which also has a sense of pathos to it, making Gust's comments about Zen masters and his scepticism when the Afghans win (sorry for spoiling the ending for anyone) seem natural rather than jammed in to give the film contemporary resonance.

Having said all that, the film does have a number of glaring flaws to it; principal amongst them is the fact that it overestimates its audience. In a way, this is quite admirable (when was the last time you saw a film that not only didn't treat you like an idiot but actually expects you to know a bit about politics and shit?) but with Charlie Wilson's War it is damaging. The film presupposes that the people watching it share its liberal viewpoint and have at least some knowledge about the connection between U.S. funding of Afghan freedom fighters in the 80's and the events of September 11th and the wider instability in the region and, as such, the film doesn't really take pains to explicitly link the two. Instead, Nichols and Sorkin use moments of heavy irony to make this connection, such as a head of a sub-committee played by Ned Beatty talking to a large group of Afghanistanis about how ''America will always be on the side of good'' followed by a crowd chatting 'Allahu Akbar' ('God is Great'), and footage of Soviet vehicles being destroyed by Afghan fighters and the way in which they could very easily be U.S. vehicles nowadays (some of the vehicles shown being destroyed are actually U.S. vehicles, which is either a mistake or an incredibly subtle commentary on the similarities). Because these very valid points of the film, that no event can happen in isolation, that a victory can have negative connotations further down the line and that the United States' unwillingness to put money into Afghanistan after the Cold War contributed to later tragedies, are not explicitly made, some critics have misconstrued the film as an exercise in flag-waving rhetoric and it feels like the film, in an attempt not to be seen as preachy, has gone the other way and has hidden its intentions too well. Though a quote from Wilson at the end does try to hammer the point home, its not quite the denouement that the material requires.

Aside from problems of ideology, the film also suffers from severe jumps in tone, jumping from light-hearted scenes with pithy dialogue to others in which Wilson witnesses the horror of war. Likewise, the aforementioned archive footage of actual attacks on Soviet troops, along with pretty shoddily directed action sequences set in Afghanistan, seem out of place when compared to the light and breezy tone of the rest of the film. These shifts are mercifully few and far between but they are incredibly jarring and bring the pace, and the laugh count, down significantly. The jokes always return, but the uneasy tone of the film is very distracting.

However, aside from its wishy-washy approach to its own point and the uneven tone, Charlie Wilson's War is a fun, well-written comedy with three sparky performers at its centre. Not a classic but certainly entertaining.