Charlie Wilson’s War
screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
InstaRating: 5+ stars out of 5
It took less than five minutes for this film to remind me why I miss Aaron Sorkin on TV.
It’s no secret that I’m a Sorkin fan but I think it’s more than fanboyish enthusiasm to gush about the quality of this screenplay. And how often does screenplay writer rank second in the credits, before even the actors? This movie opens with a classic Sorkin scene, full of pop and banter and an exploration of how “things get done” that’s a mite unconventional. It doesn’t really let up.
Plot overview: Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is a hard-drinking womanizing liberal Congressman from Texas who finds himself increasingly concerned with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the urging of a wealthy conservative fundraiser (Roberts), he turns his attention to the ramshackle response of the US government and sets about getting things in order, primarily by relying upon the maverick CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman). The movie basically follows Wilson’s political maneuvers to secure secret but massive funding for the Afghan resistance.
I can’t imagine a story more ripe for Sorkin’s brand of writing. There’s sex; there’s hard-hitting backroom politicking; there’s opportunity for high-level intellectual repartee between serious characters; and there’s some intrinsically funny stuff. The dialog is amazing and most of the characters sharply drawn. The scenes in Wilson’s Congressional office (which is almost a DC harem) are vintage Sorkin, frenetic and funny. I miss the political and organizational spectacle from The West Wing; it’s all here. There’s even a juicy potential scandal that could derail the Congressman and hence the whole war. Watching Sorkin orchestrate the backroom ballet that allows Wilson to keep his seat (and incidentally make Rudy Guiliani look like the thug he is).
As is often the case with the workplaces Sorkin chooses to depict, Charlie Wilson’s Washington office looks like it’d be a mighty fun place to work — and not just because the Congressman kept himself surrounded by beautiful women. It was the aggressive competence and clockwork synchronicity of the staffers that made these scenes a joy to watch — again, a thing he perfected on The West Wing. I kept half-expecting to hear the voice of the late great John Spencer calling out, “Maaargaret, let’s do this thing….”
Hanks is quite good as Wilson, mixing a believable laconic drawl with real steel underneath. I was less impressed with Roberts, though she is serviceable in her role as secret Washington kingmaker. Hoffman, though, completely steals the show as the wisecracking, no-nonsense sarcastic SOB who cuts through the crap and Gets Things Done. It’s Josh Lyman on steroids. 🙂
The story itself (which is nominally true) isn’t actually Sorkin’s but I can see why he was drawn to it. I don’t know much about the conflict except what one gleans growing up during it, but I think they give a tad too much credit to Wilson. From Sorkin’s screenplay, Charlie Wilson pretty much won the Cold War single-handedly, which overstates the case. Losing in Afghanistan certainly set back Soviet expansionism and helped expose the weaknesses in the system. But the cracks that brought down the Kremlin were more systemic and had roots much further back in history. On the other hand, at least it wasn’t the typical Reagan hagiography — in fact, the darling of the neoconservatives hardly rates a mention.
The movie also closes discordantly but it’s entirely appropriate: Once the war is won, American attention moves elsewhere and — despite Avrakotos’ prescient warnings and Wilson’s best efforts — we leave the country a mess and ripe for the fundamentalist takeover that eventually produces the Taliban, al Qeada, and 9/11. Sorkin is not above driving home a final lesson about American politics here and it’s well worth the telling. (Personally, I would have cut to black immediately after Avrakotos tells the long-delayed story of the Zen master, but hey, Sorkin’s got way more experience than me, so what do I know?)
This is a rollicking good movie that makes history entertaining and teaches a little about how things get done in the Real World. I recommend it heartily.