Thursday, January 10, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Political thrillers are always a pretty tricky genre to deal with. On the whole, the genre tends to be done fairly poorly, with Hollywood either deciding (with admittedly some measure of justification) that their audience needs the final film dumbed down heavily so that everyone will be able to understand it, or just deciding to make it into a clumsy, blunt weapon to beat their political interests into everyone’s heads. It’s to this film’s great credit that, outside of a couple lines here and there, neither of those problems occurs.

The film stars Tom Hanks as Congressman Charlie Wilson, a low-ranking Representative from Texas who gets caught up in trying to help the Afghanis fight off the Russian invasion of their country in the early 80s. Assisting him in this endeavor are Julia Roberts as a fairly fundamentalist Christian millionaire with a lot of influence among similarly religious Congressmen, and (in a brilliant performance) Philip Seymour Hoffman as an abrasive CIA agent that will try anything in his power to get Hanks to heavily increase black ops funding to arm the Afghanis. What’s wonderful about these people is how they’re a pack of fairly charming creeps. Roberts can’t shut up about her religious beliefs even though it’s running the risk of alienating several key financiers, Hoffman chain smokes his way through the film and seems totally unable to meet someone without infuriating them within half a minute, and Hanks doesn’t seem to make it through a single scene without a young female staffer on one arm and a drink in the other (it’s nice how, back in our more idealistic 80s, nothing is thought about him nicknaming one of his pretty young staffers Jailbait). This is some of each actor’s best work; they fully become these people, leaving no trace of their normal personas around, and they all, particularly Hoffman, get some pretty hilarious lines in here and there.

Given all the present-day drama with Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s an interesting time to make a film about the United States helping to rescue the Afghanis from the Soviets (though I imagine the Afghanis themselves might have a somewhat different opinion as to who was most responsible for their eventual victory). The film works pretty well, though, particularly in how gradual the victory is. Wilson first becomes inspired to help when seeing Dan Rather doing a piece on the situation in 1980, and they don’t manage to get the weapons out there until close to the end of the decade. Even then, it shows us just how minor the conditions for victory are considered, as we see stock footage of fighting, with captions like “Spring 1987: 47 Russian helicopters shot down”, as if that was a major military coup.

The ending doesn’t quite work, as I guess it was fated not to, as they seem to feel obligated to point out how Afghanistan eventually turned out once we had left and try to claim that it’s all our fault for not helping them rebuild after the end of the war, but the movie does work very well up until then. I’m trying right now to think of another political film that I liked as much as this, and I’m frankly finding it difficult to come up with any from this decade other than The Lives of Others. It’s a dying breed of film, heavily weakened by clumsy, ham-handed efforts from writers, directors, and producers trying to hammer audiences with their political leanings, making a film like this that mostly manages to achieve a measure of subtlety and evenness all the more impressive.

Rating: ***

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