'Charlie Wilson's War': Entertainment, not politics

Thursday, January 3, 2008

To be fair, a review of the new Tom Hanks film, "Charlie Wilson's War," should consist of two parts -- a criticism of its political statement on the bureaucratic mess that was Washington D.C. in the lead up to the fall of communism, and the appraisal of a really good film.

There's been some grumbling in the press about the film having too light a touch for such a serious subject, and that "Good Time" Charlie and his undeclared war to aid the Afghans and take down the Soviet Union seemed to be one long party more than anything else.

I'd like to remind the grumblers they're discussing a 97-minute movie that has 16 to 22 minutes to complete its first act, a second act arc that should have ups and downs like a roller coaster that charges into a third act and climaxes just a moment or two before the final credits. I humbly suggest reading a book for a thorough accounting of the Soviet-Afghan war and then easing up with an entertaining movie on a Saturday night.

And hey, the well-acted and witty "Charlie Wilson's War" is a great movie for Saturday night.

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a woman chasing, hard drinking congressman from Texas where nothing seems to interest him except chasing women, drinking hard and getting re-elected. When Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a wealthy constituent and socialite from Houston, pushes Charlie to use his seat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to help the hapless Afghans fight back against the Soviets and thus help end the Cold War, Charlie more or less obeys.

Charlie takes the sanitized and cliched congressman's tour of the war zone and is shocked at what he sees. When he finds out that little to no help is being offered by the U.S., he becomes infuriated. He puts in a call to the CIA and demands a meeting.

Enter agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in another Oscar caliber performance).

Gust is long in the tooth and big in the belly, but he knows his stuff -- if Charlie can get the money, Gust can get the guns. It seems Charlie and Gust have each found the right man.

What follows on the political front is an escalation of funding and Afghan resistance that finally ends with the Soviets pulling out and well, you know the rest. But the film is at bottom not about politics.

It's about Charlie Wilson and what a congressman can do if he has a will. Near the end of the film Gust tells Charlie a story about a Zen master and a small boy. Charlie says he's not smart enough to understand. Gust quips that "No, you're just in Congress."

"Charlie Wilson's War" is directed by Oscar winner Mike Nichols, written by Emmy winner Aaron Sorkin, stars Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Oscar nominated Amy Adams.

It is photographed by Oscar nominated Stephen Goldblatt, edited by Oscar winner John Bloom, and the music is composed by Oscar nominated James Newton Howard.

All those names on one film can sometimes spell disaster, but not this time. Sit back, let go of your politics for two hours and have a good time.

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