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This is the true story of playboy congressman Charlie Wilson's (Tom Hanks) covert funding of Afghanistan defence against the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. After being forced to witness the horrors of the Soviet attacks by right-wing anti-Communist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), the sixth richest woman in all of Texas, the normally apathetic Wilson is spurned into action. With Herring’s fund raising genius, and the help of dishevelled CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Wilson wages the largest covert war in American history.

Charlie Wilson's War
Director Mike Nichols has definitively earned his stripes. He earned them forty plus years ago with his first two films, but the last several decades have not been kind to him. He should be comparable to Robert Altman, but minus three or four movies he’s more comparable to Frank Oz (no offence meant to Frank Oz). Charlie Wilson’s War was suppose to be his comeback (really, after his last political comedy Primary Colors, you may ask), and before it was released it was an early Oscar favourite. The final product is sink and swim, and quickly dropped off the Oscar radar, but the film is undeniably entertaining in spite of itself.

The whole affair has this sort of shellac of false charm. Characters talk like they’re participating in a race the audience doesn’t know about, and the dialogue is often too sharp for its own good. It’s not that Aaron Sorkin’s script isn’t funny, or even that it doesn’t effectively tell this intriguing true story, but it seems the writer hasn’t escaped his television roots just yet. This is a sort of Catch-22 (ha, Mike Nichols pun!), because this racy and poppy pacing and dialogue really keep what could’ve been a sluggish political lesson moving along (just over ninety minutes for eight years isn’t too bad).

Charlie Wilson's War
The false charm and too witty dialogue works presented by the right actor, and Tom Hanks and especially Philip Seymour Hoffman are the right actors. Ned Beatty and an array of capable character actors are nice fits as well. Even Amy Adams works where she’s put, but Julia Roberts is all wrong. Roberts looks like a plank of wood when pitted directly against Hanks, and against Hoffman she all but disappears. Folks like me who still don’t get the appeal of Roberts will not be converted by this sub- Dallas portrayal.

There are genuinely brilliant scenes peppered throughout the relative mediocrity. In one Wilson uses a stripper to ease tension between Israeli and Islamic comrades that need to agree to work together for his plans to move forward. This scene brushes the brilliance of the political humour found in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or Nichols’ own Catch-22 (which is kind of a bad movie compared to the outstanding book). Unfortunately, monumentally rough action scenes, and a sloppy treatment of time lapse often undermine these brilliant scenes. The chief problem with the whole film is that it doesn’t deal with the future cause and effect of Wilson’s actions. The irony of this whole movie is simply too rich for a theatrical mind to ignore. Politics and historical intricacies aside, I need more than five minutes of vague regret.

Charlie Wilson's War


Charlie and his harem of sexy secretaries all look pretty super on this standard definition release. The whole film is pretty brightly photographed, which is a definite help concerning edge enhancement and general noise, though edges still suffer some minor compression artefacts throughout. The few really dark scenes are fair noisier then the rest of the film, and suffer some detail loss. Colours are bright, but can bleed into the blacks on occasion.


Though there are plenty of awkwardly edited ‘action’ scenes throughout the film, this Dolby Digital 5.1 track is relatively subdued. I suppose the point of the film isn’t to exploit the grandeur of booming destruction, so this isn’t totally unexpected. Most of the track is devoted to the poppy dialogue, which is balanced and clear, and James Newton Howard’s musical score. Howard’s score is a depressing mish-mash of so many other scores it’s kind of pathetic. A dash of Howard Shore here, a splash of Hans Zimmer there, a couple of recycles from Howard’s own back catalogue, and voila—you’ve got a sadly adequate score that is reasonably easy to ignore. It does sound rich and warm on the track, I suppose.

Charlie Wilson's War


Universal doesn’t really drop the ball on this one, but this disc is far from a slam dunk. There is a wealth of history to be explored in the form of DVD extras, but all we get is a pair of half effective but all too short featurettes. ‘The Making of Charlie Wilson’s War’ is you basic EPK, but with a lick of dignity. Mostly the brief runtime is devoted to Nichols, Sorkin and the lead actors talking about how great it was to work with one another, but I still managed to learn a bit.

‘Who is Charlie Wilson’ is more like it—a short but solid look at the real life Wilson and his real life actions, which are apparently pretty damn close to those depicted in the film. Again, the cause and effect is only hinted at in the final minute of the twelve-minute featurette. Perhaps Universal simply didn’t want to deal with the controversial facts of post-Cold War Afghanistan.

Charlie Wilson's War


I want to give Charlie Wilson’s War a 6.5 out of 10, but that isn’t an option, so in lieu of Hanks and PSH’s performances I’m willing to round up my film score. The film is a failure on many levels, but it succeeds in entertaining while informing, and despite a slightly annoying attempt at screwball dialogue and old-fashion Hollywood charm, it’s also occasionally quite funny. Unfortunately, it’s the sequel that will never be made that is the movie I really want to see. This DVD is a bit weak on the extras front, but the nominal featurettes do their job well.