Few people know how our government works. Even fewer know how it is supposed to work.
Over the years I've received countless phone calls promoting a political candidate. I ask the caller: "Who is the Secretary of Agriculture?"
No one has ever known. No one. Ever. I could ask the identity of most members of the cabinet, and I doubt if any caller would be able to answer. And these people want me to vote for a candidate. At least the man promoting Obama said he was "embarrassed" that he didn't know. That's a start.
Charlie Wilson's War features two characters who know how government is supposed to work. They also know it doesn't work as it is supposed to, so they have to subvert the system and go beyond it.
Charlie Wilson's War is based on actual people and actual events. Two political freedom fighters, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and Gust L. Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) join with a wealthy Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) to fund arms for the Mujahideen, Afghan tribesmen who are resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980's.
Charlie Wilson is a seemingly negligible congressman from Lufkin, Tex., who is a wheeler-dealer, ladies' man, heavy drinker and drug taker. He is well connected in a couple of ways to a powerful Texas lady who is on a religious, anti-Communist crusade. She wants Charlie to make things happen for the resistance fighters against the Soviets. She offers Charlie money and connections in Pakistan to bring this about.
Into this equation comes crude CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, who has been thwarted for advancement by the agency, which has put a ceiling on his career, leaving him frustrated. The actual Avrakotos died in 2005.
Charlie and Gust know how to get things done. With the financial backing of Lady Herring, they mount an effective covert operation, which has repercussions today.
Charlie Wilson's War should be entertainment with an enlightened punch. But like the people who call me on the phone, it is ineffectually incomplete. It pulls its punch.
Supposedly Aaron Sorkin's original script ended on 9/11, which would have been an ending that made a telling, provocative point. But instead Charlie Wilson's War ends without any passion or provocation.
Instead of making a final, potent visual point, there is a brief quotation written by Wilson about the inability to follow up on the success in Afghanistan.
Even worse, Charlie Wilson's War ends with a banal scene of an audience applauding enthusiastically at an awards ceremony for Charlie Wilson.
Maybe that's where ad-hack Pete Hammond got the idea. He's quoted in the ad for Charlie Wilson's War: "You definitely want to stand up and cheer." Only if you're a fool.
The generic ending of Charlie Wilson's War turns point and power into pap. Why does the movie turn weak-kneed at the end? Because it doesn't want to risk being uncommercial.
War movies, even ones set in the 1980's, have become death at the box office. Television has taken the life and reality out of "wars" in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq. Audiences are tired and bored by any further discussion. Reality TV is much more real than war.
Serious movies about war and its effects are so "old school." So Charlie Wilson's War substitutes applause for those nasty echoes.
The best part of the film is the confident acting by Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman. They both are in complete control.
Julia Roberts is miscast as the sexy, Houston honcho. Julia brings the "lite" to Texas socialite; she's about as believable as Betty Boop.
Director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin compromise their principles. In 1970 Nichols directed Catch-22, which had biting satire and shocking war. Thirty-seven years later, Nichols has lost any bite he had; he now nibbles.
Sorkin, as usual, writes well, but he has become a creature of compromise. It's obvious the squabbles with studios and systems have taken their toll. One may remember the classic line that Aaron Sorkin wrote in A Few Good Men. It's a line that reverberates off Charlie Wilson's War: "You can't handle the truth." It appears that Nichols and Sorkin don't think we can.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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