Imagine, if you will, walking into a bar one night and there’s Jessical Biel/Jessica Alba/Jessica Rabbit/any gorgeous ‘Jessica’ you’d love to fuck basically. You (in all your nerdy, unattractive glory) catch her eye and miraculously she starts giving you the come-on. You bottle it, but she comes over anyway and starts talking to you. The conversation flows in perfect unison with the drinks and before you know it, she’s leading you, via her limo, back to her hotel room, sticking her tongue down your throat in the elevator and groping your groin furiously until she gets you into her room. One thing leads to another and she strips you buck naked before undressing herself and… revealing herself to have the largest, wart-ridden penis you have ever seen. A woman of pure perfection reveals herself to have a flaw you just can’t bring yourself to forgive, no matter how tempting it might be to just turn her round and try ‘knocking on her back door’ by way of compensation.
Going in, Charlie Wilson’s War is the cinematic equivalent of Jessica Biel/Alba/Rabbit etc. standing at that bar – it stars Tom Hanks, undoubtedly one of our truely consistent Hollywood greats, Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the best actors not just of our generation but of any generation, Amy Adams, who is clearly a major star on the rise, and Julia Roberts who, regardless of your opinion of her overall, can bring a degree of class and talent to a project when she wants to that very few A-list “names” these days seem to be able to. It’s directed by Mike Nichols who’s an unarguably talented director who has delivered stone cold vintage masterpieces (The Graduate) along with brilliant political satires of this type before (Primary Colours). And the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the modern classic that was A Few Good Men, and has held the pen on one of the greatest political dramas of all time (The West Wing) and one of the most under-rated satirical shows too (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip).
If ever Hollywood was going to make a “classy” movie about America’s involvement with Afghanistan (the first time round) and for it to not only stick around at the box office a little longer then all other films of late that have ‘war’ as a theme, but to maybe go on to be a film of real weight for decades to come, then this would have to be it right?
Midway through the film though you start to realise that Charlie Wilson’s War has dropped the ball a little and revealed itself to be a “gorgeous girl with a dick” of a movie. It’s a film that doesn’t actually know whether it wants to be classed as a ‘caper movie’ in which “our heroes” need to “rob the government” in order to “save a country”, or whether it wants to be a moral-heavy drama about the integrity of “one lone man” out to support the plight of the “brave Afghans” as they “battle the Russians” in the early 80s. It actually comes across as if the film wants to be both – a la having its cake and eating it – but doesn’t know how to gel the two together.
Because all behind it don’t know how to gel the two very different tones together, we the audience don’t know how to take it. We’re laughing one minute and midway through our guffaws we’re getting hit with scenes of huge dramatic gravitas and it knocks the wind out of us a little. We’re introduced to subplots involving Wilson being investigated for a coke-and-sex scandal (didn’t you just know that opening scene in the hot tub would turn out to be important after all huh?) but then they are treat as a complete afterthought soon after, thrown to the side and then quickly done away with. What was the point of introducing the subplot in the first place then?
Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays are normally so tight and perfectly coiled that it seems strange that, on a project with such huge potential, this would be the one he screwed the proverbial pooch on. However, on a performance level, the film deserves a great deal of acclaim; Hanks is as good, nay great, as you’d expect him to be and he has a ball. He loses the movie to Hoffman though who is, quite simply, superb and an absolute joy to watch. The film suffers whenever he is not on screen. Amy Adams is pure class with her small role and even Julia Roberts does a commendable job, given that she manages to keep her head above the water despite a) not always proving to have the strength to do so in a lot of her work and b) such talents as Hanks and Hoffman are splashing around beside her, creating a “wave” that could and should drown her.
The ending is abrupt and seems so only because no one involved wants to touch with a barge pole the real-life notion that the Western world handed the Afghans the tools that they’d smack us back on the arse with years later. Finishing with Wilson’s real life quote of “… we fucked up the end game…” is a bit like referring to Moby Dick as a “gold-fish” and it really just feels as if Nichols and company shouldn’t have gone down this route if they didn’t want to tell the complete story; namely Wilson’s prediction and subsequent worry that if we didn’t do things properly with Afghanistan then it could bite us in the backside… and how it did.
So overall, despite some wonderful performances –and they really are of an exceptionally high standard – the uneven tone and the general feeling that only half the story is being told because nobody wants to “get involved” with the “real messy stuff”, leaves Charlie Wilson’s War as if it’s a film that could’ve, would’ve and should’ve been a real great piece of political cinema if they’d not been so safe. That it’s ‘just’ good is probably the most disappointing thing of all.