Mike Nichols died recently, and with The Newsroom having just two episodes remaining, I decided I needed to watch Charlie Wilson’s War – a 2007 film directed by Mr. Nichols, and written by Mr. Aaron Sorkin – that somehow had fallen through the cracks without me having seen it.
I went in with high expectations about Tom Hanks as the former US Congressman Charlie Wilson. Would I get an ‘Aw Shucks’ version of Hanks, as if he was reprising Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or maybe his own Larry Crowne.
Would I get an American Idol film star on a par with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe a Gary Cooper as Meet John Doe.
Or maybe Hanks would come off as a guy somewhere between a Bogie or a Bond?
What I got was Tom Hanks doing a good-looking and slicked up version of Lyndon B. Johnson. A good old boy down from East Texas, a master in the arts of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, a king among deal makers, as well as man who could consume vast quantities of liquor and equally large quantities of women.
He’d party anywhere – in a bar, a bedroom, or even a hot tub in a Las Vegas hotel complete with a handful of bimbos.
This was a Tom Hanks I hadn’t expected, or more importantly never seen before. This was a Hanks far different from his Captain Miller of Saving Private Ryan, or Chuck Noland of Cast Away, or Forrest Gump. Here Hanks as Congressman Wilson simply oozed charm and sex appeal which was a cover for how he was going to talk to you, or cajole you, or simply con you into doing something you hadn’t given much thought to.
Most of which was geared to raising an operational budget for covert operations to help shoot down Communist helicopters (the MI-24 gunships) that were creating havoc in Afghanistan. What Charlie Wilson intended was to bankrupt Russia by making their incursions, or more accurately described – their brutal occupation into Afghanistan, result in what happened to America in Vietnam.
This was the early 1980’s and the American President was Ronald Reagan. Charlie may have been a guy who partied till the sun came up, but he was also a member of two important Congressional committees – Foreign Policy and Covert Operations.
With an idea planted in his head by Joanne Herring, a very well-connected Houston socialite, and the tactical operations handled by one Gust Avrakotos, a kind of rogue CIA field agent – what Charlie Wilson was able to accomplish was nothing short of miraculous, and that was the fall of the Soviet Union.
In case you’re thinking that this was some kind of make believe thing ala Wag the Dog, a 1997 film with Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, kindly disavow that thought. No sir, this was all too real. Sorkin’s script was an adaption of the non-fiction book, of the same name written by George Crile.
So I had high expectations for Sorkin as well. This film was likely written by Sorkin following his ultra successful TV Series – The West Wing which followed Sorkin’s blockbuster films A Few Good Men and The American President. If anything, this film fell short of all of the above. But that’s not a criticism. Rather it is meant to say that Charlie Wilson’s War was still particularly entertaining just not up there on the pantheon of Sorkin’s greatest hits.
Remember, this was a film most likely written in 2006, so it doesn’t have a whole lot of the Sorkin style that we’ve come to admire. There was one verbal shootout that I will grant major kudos to.
Gust Avrakotos is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he’s pissed off majorly with his CIA boss played marvelously by Mad Men’s John Slattery.
It seems that Avrakotos did not get the Chief of Station job in Finland and he’s in Langley venting about it to his boss Cravely. There’s sparks, then there’s a whole lot of FY’s and GFY’s, and there’s even a ton of flying glass – one of the perils of having an interior glass wall in an office. It was classic Sorkin at work.
Julia Roberts plays Joanne Herring. I’m not sure if it was the early 80’s hairstyles, or clothing, or even Roberts doing a Texas twang, but she didn’t give me a lot of the Wow factor that I expected. This is not to say that Roberts failed in the role – but for me – the character of Joanne Herring outperformed the actress playing her.
I’ve already mentioned the stellar performances of Hanks and Hoffman, but there were a whole lot more memorable roles. Emily Blunt played Jane Liddle, the daughter of a constituent, Larry Liddle (played by Peter Gerety) of Charlie Wilson. She has only two scenes – first as a Ms Prim and Proper when her Dad pays a visit to Charlie Wilson’s office in the Capitol Building in Washington DC, and second when she plays the same girl only now as a hot-to-trot seductress in Charlie Wilson’s apartment.
Ned Beatty is on hand as a fellow Congressmen, Om Puri plays the Pakistani President General Zia ul-Haq, Ken Stott, known famously as Balin in the most recent Hobbitt trilogy, appears as Zvi, an Israeli Mossad agent.
Let’s see, Amy Adams is on board as Charlie Wilson’s Administrator, Bonnie Bach. She’s great as Wilson’s right hand, running his office, his schedule, and his appointments all while having a not-so-secret strong crush on her boss. And in my mind she steals the film.
There are elements of fantasy, or maybe I’ll call them artistic screenwriting liberties taken in this film – like Charlie’s Wilson’s office staffed completely by women – each one more buxom and curvier, and smarter than the next one. Or Avrakotos concealing a voice transmitter in the cap of a bottle of booze.
But what wasn’t fantasy was the fact that Wilson got his budget raised from 5 million to 1 billion and all of it done without public knowledge. The deal got the Israelis, and the Pakistanis, and the Egyptians, working together, to pay for, bring, and transport top-notch weapons, missile systems, and munitions, none of which appeared to come from America, along with the know how, straight into the hands of the Afghanistan mujahideen.
Charlie Wilson’s war did pay off as the Soviet Union did crumble and fail. Charlie Wilson’s War did pay off as an entertainment as well. Maybe it wasn’t the full metal Sorkin jacket that I had hoped for, but it worked fine. Maybe Ms Roberts let me down but she was guilty of just not being up to her usual standards.
But Tom Hanks was excellent, as was the incredible supporting cast. This was Mike Nichols’s last effort as a film director, and it wasn’t up to the standards of his work from 25 to 35 years earlier. But then again, Nichols was 75 or 76 years of age when he directed this film, and maybe his inner fires burned less brightly and with far less energy or intensity. But maybe it was just Nichols being Nichols as the director.
Meaning Julia Roberts was the one to fall on her own sword for this film. As Nichols once said – If everybody’s adorable, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t have any events.
In case you haven’t seen this film, have a look at the trailer: