Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts may play larger-than-life politicos in "Charlie Wilson's War," but only in the first half is the story told on screen.
‘War’ ends too soon
'Charlie Wilson's War' is a true Mideast caper involving colorful characters
History not only repeats itself, it manages to do so with surprising regularity -- with an emphasis on the surprising. The trouble with shoehorning a true story into a feature film is that real life rarely has a dramatic arc in three acts. Real life tends to continue on after the credits roll.
'Charlie Wilson's War'
Opens Fridays in theaters
That's sort of the point of "Charlie Wilson's War," an often smart, frequently entertaining and uncommonly annoying re-imagining of a largely unknown caper in American political history. The film ads note that it is "based on a true story. You think we could make all this up?"
Let's meet the cast of characters in this movie. "Good Time" Charlie Wilson was a Democratic congressman from Texas, who was not only a sharp, nimble politician who managed to get seated on budget committees, he was also a notorious hedonist with a fondness for alcohol, nekkid ladies and Hefneresque bachelor pads. Joanne Herring was a notoriously rich Texas beauty queen with a lunatic right-wing political agenda. Gust Avrakotos was notorious mostly within the hushed campus of the CIA for being blue-collar, loud, profane and immensely skilled at real-politik solutions for dirty situations.
In the early 1980s, the three teamed up and convinced the Pakistanis and Saudis to clandestinely ally themselves with Israel to provide captured Russian weapons to Afghan's Muslim freedom fighters -- mujahideen -- to fight Russian occupation forces.
Can you imagine? Probably not. But it happened. It was a secret war that American taxpayers unknowingly paid up to a billion dollars a year to finance. And it worked. Russians were killed by the handful -- the movie's characters whip it out, including the ladies, by declaring how much they want to kill Russians -- and the Soviet Union's Afghan adventure ended exactly the way every other empire's foray into that part of the world did, with a bedraggled retreat and chaos at home. The debacle in Afghanistan contributed mightily to the end of communist control in Russia. That was the goal, and it was met.
Scripted by Aaron Sorkin from George Criles' book, and directed by Mike Nichols, most of the film tells this incredible tale with brio and an ironic distance. It casts canny Tom Hanks as Wilson, a bon vivant who can't help being engaged by the game of politics; Julia Roberts as a brittle, ice-queen Herring; and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Avrakotos, always on the edge of an explosion. It doesn't often happen, but the real-life people were better-looking than the actors playing them.
The first half of the film is a lot of fun, and compactly telescopes the story into what are essentially comedy bits that manage to forward the exposition. It is often quite brilliant in exploring that peculiar American can-do ethos of the late Cold War, a time that now seems as out of touch as a James Bond movie. Everyone smokes, drinks and ogles breasts unashamedly. It's great. Some of it seems right out of "John Goldfarb Please Come Home," a movie that will never be re-released on DVD for fear of offending both the Saudi royal family and the Notre Dame football team.
By the time the players actually get the ball rolling, however, Nichols smacks us with horrors in Afghan refugee camps, and the too-cool-for-school campiness plays these scenes as comedy as well. The tone control goes right out the window. From here on, the film becomes wildly uneven, to the point of wondering if huge bits of exposition were simply hacked out.
Then it lurches to a stop, after only an hour and a half, with a brief coda about how the game was well-played but eventually fumbled. The big true-fable story of Charlie Wilson feels abbreviated and cheated. There's more to tell!
There's more to point out. The Afghan adventure felled the Soviets, but it also created a well-armed, united Muslim revolutionary force dedicated to laying waste to Western influences. Afghanistan itself fell into a Taliban hell, while we congratulated ourselves on kicking Russian butt second-hand. One of the rebel leaders who benefited from Charlie Wilson's war was Osama bin Laden.
This bitter aftermath is barely, briefly alluded to in "War," and don't blink. It's as if editors and marketeers sucked out all the potential gravitas before it could affect the gassy goings-on. It keeps the film from having a real impact instead of becoming piffle. Too bad, in a season that includes "The Kite Runner," another film about the collapse of Afghanistan.
Hollywood is generally accused of having a liberal, anti-war bias by politicians who don't want citizens to think for themselves. Although "Charlie Wilson's War" might have had some sort of backbone at one time, I suspect it's lying on the cutting floor. Too bad. Great stories deserve great movies, not timid entertainments.