This is another one of those movies that came out around award season, and I just couldn’t quite pull the trigger on seeing it in the theatres. Was I right to save the thirteen bucks (I am a sucker for some Swedish Fish)?
Charlie Wilson’s War is the story of how Congressman Charlie Wilson clandestinely helped Afghanistan wage a war against Russia, ultimately leading to the defeat of Russia and the ‘end’ of the Iron Curtain. The film, at least for the first two-thirds, focuses on Wilson’s hard-charging life of drinking and women, how he got invested (emotionally) in the plight of the Afghan people and how he got Congress and others to foot the bill for the weaponry needed to properly fight the Russians. I was enthralled by this part of the film. The writing by Aaron Sorkin was quick and smart, circa early West Wing. The acting was by and large fantastic. Tom Hanks, as Charlie Wilson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his CIA lead, were almost magical together. Julia Roberts as a religious conservative who was pushing the Afghan tragedy publicly was fair. Amy Adams was good as Charlie Wilson’s assistant. I loved the history lesson. I loved the intimacy in which Charlie Wilson’s War began to be waged, but there were signs of trouble.
Inherent in this story, indeed, inherent in the very name of this film is a dichotomy. There is the individual (Charlie Wilson) and the universal (War). The trick of any good story that is attempting to tackle this dichotomy is matching the power presented in one side with the power presented in the other. For example, a film that comes, in my opinion, very close to addressing this dichotomy successfully is Saving Private Ryan. The first half of that film presents War as universal, and does so in such a fashion that no one who watches it can be left unaffected. The rest of the film generally focuses on the individual, and the toll of the universal on the individual. This part of the film is good, not great, as the premise is a little thematically contrived. Ultimately, you don’t quite feel the individual toll on Private Ryan (you do, however, feel it with Tom Hanks’ character; in fact, you could have taken out the Private Ryan storyline and you might have ended up with an even more powerful film.). In Charlie Wilson’s War, unfortunately, there is no balance to the dichotomy. There are a few scenes in the first two-thirds that hint at this, like when Charlie Wilson goes to Pakistan and sees the refuge crisis. Indeed, any time the set pieces got big the emotion got lost. For such a phenomenal director as Mike Nichols this failure might seem surprising, but if you look over his rather astonishing filmography, you will see that his greatest accomplishments are films of a rather personal nature, and the world of action and effects may not be within his repertoire.
The last third of Charlie WIlson’s War rarely gets back to the individual, and suffers for it. It also seems very rushed and choppy. I did appreciate that they did not back down from showing the U.S.’ failure to help Afghanistan form a functioning democracy after the war ended, which ultimately led to the emergence of the Taliban, but those few scenes were not enough to save a dud of a third act.
I would still recommend checking this film, just don’t expect greatness. If you, like me, did not see it in the theatre, you made the right call.