' ' Cinema Romantico: Charlie Wilson's War

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

This is the craziest movie I've seen in some time. Not crazy as in an inebriated Will Ferrell streaking "through the quad and then to the gymnasium" in "Old School" but in a different way. Here's a movie based on a true story about a trio of Americans that get the weapons to the Afghanistan freedom fighters in the 1980's that allow them to eventually beat back the mighty Soviet Union. Now wouldn't you assume a story such as that would be quite an undertaking? Full of drama? Overwhelmed with the monumental? Perhaps, but despite its base Mike Nichols' film feels so much more like a light breeze, a lark, a trio that decided to take on the Red Army from behind the scenes so they'd have something to do between cocktails.

Our trio is spearheaded by the man for whom the movie was named - congressman from Texas's 2nd district, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks). The man likes whiskey and he likes women. He's like them so much, in fact, he keeps himself surrounded by them quite literally at his office. But he fancies his politics, too, and we find this out when he seems more interested in why Dan Rather is on TV wearing a turbin then the comely young women beside him in a Las Vegas hot tub.

Second, we have CIA agent Gust Avrakatos (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, flat-out spectacular in a role that garnered him an Oscar nod). He's a guy with a short fuse, which is why the first time we see him he's telling his boss to (rhymes with duck) himself. He's on the Afghan desk at the CIA and that means it's him and "three other agents" battling the Russians all by their lonesome. This is a guy who is who he is and if you don't like it, well, too bad.

Third, we have Houston socialite and the "sixth richest woman in Texas" Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, re-proving she's a movie star, not an actress).

Joanne's got connections in the Middle East and so when Charlie takes a trip there she ensures he meets the Pakistani President and the Pakistani President ensures that Charlie sees the refugee camps where Afghans are streaming and Charlie ensures that he will see to getting weapons into the hands of the Afghans to ensure they can fight back against the Soviets.

The first meeting between Charlie and Gust in Charlie's office is the high point of the film, and one of the finest single scenes from all of (say it with me!) 2007. About to become embroiled in a scandal involving a former colleague Charlie schemes with his band of striking secretaries to ward it off while simultaneously entering into the early stages of hatching his scheme to assist Afghanistan. Gust enters and then the secretaries enter and so Gust leaves and then the secretaries leave so Gust re-enters and then the secretaries re-enter....so on, so forth.

And in the scenes like those Nichols is completely in his element. It plays like a screwball farce with the Cold War as a backdrop. Unfortunately, when the film tries to shift its focus to being more dramatic it sputters. Take, for instance, the absurdly boring montage that keeps a running tally of how many Soviet helicopters were shot down each year with stock combat footage or the capping scene to show that us even though the war is over the war isn't really over. It doesn't resonate because the movie wasn't structured to make it resonate. But that's not necessarily bad since it signals Nichols was able to determine precisely what was best about the movie he was making - that being the duo of Charlie and Gust.

I have no idea if in real life these two ever teamed up again, and I don't care. I propose a Hardy Boys-esque series in which Charlie and Gust trot the globe, drinking, schmoozing, exchanging witty rapport, and solving mysteries. (And we'll have Meryl Streep take on the Joanne Herring role.)

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