Thursday, May 21, 2020

Talented Filmmakers and Actors Put Up a Grand Fight in Charlie Wilson's War

Laid bare, the political subtext of Charlie Wilson's War is not great. Now, I'm not saying the movies "offensive" or using this review to call for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to get  "canceled". I' m merely stating that the premise does hinge on halcyon ideas of political cooperation. Charlie Wilson's War occupies the Ellen Degeneres mindset of there being no difference between Democratic and Republican politicians, why can't everyone get along? After all, much like Ellen, the two lead characters of Charlie Wilson's War are rich white people who don't suffer any consequences associated with idealogy in either political party. Sorkin's take on the true story events of Operation Cyclone is an idealistic vision of the status quo, one that doesn't tamper with how things are but rather imagines what would happen if everything as it were just ran smoother.

It's worth bringing that up not only to recognize the inherent shortcomings in the worldview of Charlie Wilson's War but to emphasize that I enjoyed the movie enough to make these problematic details just an unfortunate aside rather than a deal-breaker. With those critiques out of the way, we can delve into the myriad of ways Charlie Wilson's War garnered my affection. First and foremost, though, let's look at the plot, which concerns Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks). He's more than a bit of a scoundrel but he loves his country by gum! He also loves sexual encounters with wealthy Republican activist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), who convinces Wilson to join her on her latest crusade.

Said crusade concerns helping the Afghani people fight back against Soviet forces that have invaded their country. This effort would require the United States to keep its participation totally secret while also uniting several other countries, like Pakistan and Iran, that normally can't stand the sight of one another. Oh, and Wilson will also have to work alongside Gust Avrakotos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). This story is brought to life by two artists whose work I've consistently enjoyed, director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin. The versatile Nichols makes for a great pairing with the distinct writing of Sorkin, particularly since Sorkin's dialogue requires just the right delivery on the part of the actors.

Luckily, Nichols and his gift for working with performers comes in handy here in ensuring that Charlie Wilson's War has a wonderful line-up of performances right down to one-scene turns from character actors like Rizwan Manji. The cast includes a delightful roguish turn from Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson. It can be easy to forget Hanks got his start in comedy but the way he so effortlessly nails his comedic lines in Charlie Wilson's War will remind one of Hanks' gifts as a comedic performer. However, the best performance, by far, in Charlie Wilson's War is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos.

One of Hoffman's many gifts as a performer was his ability to immediately convey who his characters were just from the way they stood or sat. When you see Avrakotos sitting in a chair with sunglasses covering his eyes and a posture that says "I've resigned myself to this reality", you clearly get this guys personality. While Hoffman's performance is full of those kinds of rich subtle details, his best scene comes in his introductory sequence which thrives on eschewing subtlety. Bellowing out a superior (played by John Slattery!) for passing Avrakotos over for a new job despite how much Avrakotos has risked in his occupation, Hoffman has all the fury of the universe packed into one man. Sorkin's exquisitely-written frustrated dialogue couldn't have found a better home than Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it's a magnificent scene.

That may be the best part of Charlie Wilson's War but the rest of the movie still provides commendable work, particularly in regards to how this story is told. Charlie Wilson's War proves to be a precursor to the later film Lincoln in its decision to depict Washington politics in a heist movie manner as Charlie Wilson and his allies try to score as much discreet support as possible for their cause. Sorkin's choice to frame the story in this manner, as well as oodles of his trademark style of dialogue, kept me thoroughly engaged. That having been said, Charlie Wilson's War serves up an ending that really needed to embrace rather than just hint at darker material. As a result, the conclusion can't help but feel a touch like a cop-out, one that makes the aforementioned iffy political subtext of the proceedings harder to entirely dismiss. Still, Charlie Wilson's War is predominately a good time, one that allows its star-studded cast and talented writer & director plenty of chances to shine.

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