Mike Nichols made one of the greatest antiwar films of all time, Catch-22, back in 1970. It was a film of and for its time, reflecting both the mood of the Vietnam era and the aesthetic of that time, but doing so by looking at World War II rather than Vietnam. It was bold. It was in your face. But it was distanced, even if the distancing fooled no one. Here we have Nichols 37 years later doing something not wholly dissimilar with Charlie Wilson’s War. Oh, the tone is somewhat different, but that’s more a case of a 2007 aesthetic vs. a 1970’s one. For all that, the opening of Nichols’ latest—the image of what appears to be a Middle Eastern holy man at prayer against a Christmas-card-perfect sky just before he shoulders a rocket launcher and fires it directly at the viewer—is as in your face as anything in Catch-22.
As with Catch-22, Nichols is working from a book, only this one—by the late 60 Minutes producer George Crile—is true. That doesn’t mean that it’s any less fantastic in its own way than Catch-22. After all, this is the story of a flawed, womanizing, hard-drinking liberal Texas congressman, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), who gets involved in a bizarre covert war in Afghanistan. He manages to defeat the Russian army with the assistance of a hard-right, God-obsessed, extremely sexual Houston socialite, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts); an outspoken, cynical, unpopular CIA operative, Gust Avrakatos (Philip Seymour Hoffman); an unlikely alliance of Middle Eastern countries; and an office filled with beautiful women. It’s even more convoluted than that sounds (complexities and subplots abound), and if anything, it’s all even stranger than that reads.
How fast and loose Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (TV’s The West Wing) play with the material is another matter, but the essentials are true enough—and one of the rare recent cases where the words “based on true events” should not send you heading for the exit. Quite the opposite, this is one of 2007’s most accomplished films.
The real question is whether or not this Reagan-era story appears sufficiently removed from current events to hook audiences that have stayed as far as possible from anything even suggesting the war in Iraq. With varying degrees of failure, The Kingdom, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs have all bellied up at the box office. Can what is being marketed on its quirky humor beat down that resistance? That remains to be seen, but if any film deserves to do so, Charlie Wilson’s War is that film. That’s partly due to the fact that Nichols and Sorkin are able to see the silliness and shortcomings of both ends of the political spectrum—but it goes deeper.
Nichols is a filmmaker who subscribes to something like the credo expressed by Peter O’Toole as movie director Eli Cross in Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980): to be a man who realizes that his message will only get through if it sneaks up on the audiences “while they’re all laughing and crying and jerking off.” In short, he knows that the price for “preaching” to the audience is entertaining the audience, and that’s something he pulls off here splendidly. He’s crafted a wickedly funny film—complete with unabashed nudity, partying and cheerfully corrupt characters.
Sorkin’s script bristles with witty dialogue, and Nichols and his cast get the best out of it. I’m not a huge fan of Tom Hanks, but he’s the perfect Charlie Wilson—and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts are the perfect sparring partners for him. The film never lets itself stray too far into sentimentality. While images of maimed Afghan children are brought to bear on Charlie’s commitment, Charlie has no qualms about using that to manipulate the cooperation of Doc Long (Ned Beatty), who is the key to funding this covert operation. Similarly Charlie and Gust are perfectly clear on the necessary evil of all this being done in such a way that no weaponry that goes to Afghanistan can be traced back to the U.S. The film itself dodges ethics questions not just by making a case for the approach, but by turning all this into an almost Ocean’s Eleven-style con game—knowing full well that this is something audiences will buy, if only because it’s fun seeing powerful bad guys duped by the less powerful and seeing lovable scoundrels beat unlovable ones.
But all of this fun—and it is fun—has a point. There’s a stinger in the tail of the story when the happy ending it reaches is no ending at all, but is instead a step on the road to the present day. The amusement value of the film is undermined by the deadly seriousness of the legacy of Charlie’s war—and that’s where Nichols and Sorkin have been taking us all along. See this movie. Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use.