Thursday, January 10, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War: Audacious slice of recent history

Charlie Wilson's War (2007) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, nudity and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.10.08

Those who wonder if truth really is stranger than fiction need look no further than Charlie Wilson.

The East Texas congressman's wild escapade in Afghanistan is the sort of crazed endeavor that wouldn't be believed if it turned up in a mainstream thriller; it's a throwback to the gung-ho statesmanship of President Theodore Wilson, whose flamboyant style was portrayed so well in 1975's The Wind and the Lion.

When Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks, left) demands to know precisely what sort
of weapon would be required to down a Soviet war helicopter, scruffy CIA agent
Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, center) introduces the congressman
to a chess-playing expert on Soviet intel named Mike Vickers (Christopher
Denham). These are merely three of many colorful characters who slyly
orchestrate what comes to be known as "Charlie Wilson's War."
But that story — highly fictionalized, despite being lifted from an actual historical incident — took place during simpler times, when one still could imagine two men changing the destinies of entire countries. The events of Charlie Wilson's War, by contrast, are scarcely two decades old ... and apparently far closer to actual truth.

The setting is the early 1980s, and we're forced to believe that an unlikely trio — a Texas congressman best known as a party animal, a thoroughly vexed CIA agent and a wealthy Texas socialite who had found God — moved bureaucratic mountains so that long-suffering Afghan rebels could get the weapons they needed, in order to repel the invading Soviet army.


I'm not sure which is worse … accepting the notion that Wilson managed to finesse the Washington, D.C., system and engineer this nutball scheme, or the possibility that this sort of behavior is business as usual on Capitol Hill.

And while screenwriter Aaron Sorkin — adapting George Crile's best-selling book — clearly cherry-picked details and messes a bit with the timeline, the basic facts are so wonderfully audacious that they cannot be dismissed. When asked how the Russians were defeated in Afghanistan, then-Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq replied, "Charlie did it."

OK, sure, quite a few more people were involved, and the truth was more complicated.

But not all that much...

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Wilson, who by 1979 has represented Texas' second district for six years, and has a reputation derived solely from his nickname: "Good time Charlie."

Wilson loves alcohol and women, and not necessarily in that order; he also isn't too judicious about the company he keeps. Indeed, we first meet him in the fantasy suite of a Las Vegas casino, relaxing in a hot tub with a few strippers and other questionable companions.

It seems an unduly salacious beginning for a saga of political machinations, but this is the very setting where the actual Wilson had his epiphany, when his attention was distracted by a televised 60 Minutes profile — produced by Crile — about the Afghans who, armed with the equivalent of flintlocks, were trying to wage war against the assault helicopters of the invading Soviet army.

Wilson, no doubt weaned on the similarly outmatched heroics of those who tried to save the Alamo, finds the TV piece difficult to believe ... because he knows that the United States has an interest in this war. Why, he wonders, are we spending so little — a mere $5 million, at the time — to help noble warriors turn back the tide of godless communism?

As played here by Hanks — and also quite clearly revealed in both Crile's book and a recent History Channel documentary — Wilson may have partied hard while in Congress, but he was no fool. He knows all the important movers and shakers, and he cheerfully doles out favors, taking care to remember names against some future opportunity for payback.

His office is staffed by stunning young women who give the appearance of being little more than eye candy — he collectively refers to them as "Jailbait" — but this, too, is misleading; they're competent, resourceful and quite intelligent.

First among equals is Bonnie Bach (Amy Adams), who movies as Charlie's shadow, trained to anticipate his every thought and deed. Think of her as the flesh-and-blood equivalent of Radar O'Reilly, the beloved M.A.S.H. character.

Bonnie, however, is no joke; Adams makes her persuasively competent and resourceful. Between this part and her starring role in Enchanted, Adams has become an actress on the move.

But she's by no means this film's strongest acting asset; that honor goes to the chameleonlike Philip Seymour Hoffman, utterly riveting as veteran CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, a tenacious, blue-collar operative clearly viewed with contempt by the agency's Ivy League bluebloods. Avrakotos' introduction here is as memorable as Wilson's stint in the hot tub: screaming obscenities at a supervisor, prior to taking a hammer to the man's office window.

Despite being the most shadowy of this story's various players, Hoffman's Avrakotos somehow grounds the action. Scruffiness becomes this guy, and — like Charlie — he's not to be underestimated.

The remaining point of the triangle is occupied by Joanne Herring (Julie Roberts), Charlie's longtime friend, frequent patron and occasional lover. Despite employing her good looks to the advantage the actual Herring no doubt obtained from such physical assets, Roberts isn't quite as forceful as Hanks, Hoffman and Adams.

Her Joanne is the one person who seems more like caricature than character.

Wildly bizarre as it seems, Charlie, Gust and Joanne mount an arms deal for the Afghans much the way Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney once exhorted kids to "put on a show." At one point, everything hinges on wooing old Doc Long (Ned Beatty), chairman of the House's Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ... and, again, if our real-world politicians can be stroked this easily, then the lunatics really are running the asylum.

The premise is tantalizing; the dialogue has the hilarious, rat-a-tat intensity of a classic screwball comedy in the vein of His Girl Friday (albeit with a ceaseless string of epithets). That's both the advantage and slight drawback of Sorkin's script: Aside from frequently sounding like an episode of The West Wing, this screenplay is a nonstop collection of lines that are too good.

The result certainly is entertaining, but it's also breathtaking ... and not terribly credible. Most of us spend months without hurling a perfectly timed zinger; these folks do it as easily as breathing.

Ah, to be so sharp and witty...

The film concludes on a emotional high, with the Afghans finally able to blast Soviet helicopters out of the sky, and Charlie acknowledged by the CIA as a "distinguished friend" for his efforts on the agency's behalf. But once the Soviets have retreated from the country, Charlie suddenly isn't able to raise even $1 million to help rebuild Afghanistan's schools.

We all know what happened next, even though Sorkin's script rather pointedly fails to connect the dots: Something else moved into the power vacuum left by the Soviets, and that led straight to 9/11.

As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. The film even closes with the actual Wilson's bleak and rather profane assessment of D.C.'s handling of "the endgame."

Hanks remains the Teflon warrior throughout: perfectly at ease with the Texan accent, the good ol' boy charm and the cowboy-style outfits. One imagines the character played by a much younger Hanks back in 1984's Bachelor Party, having grown into a man who recognizes that the world still turns on such hijinks.

And yet the part isn't solely kicks and grins. Hanks puts just the right conviction into his telling of the seminal incident from Charlie's past — an actual incident — when he first learned all about political power ... and the sweet taste of revenge.

Such moments give Charlie Wilson's War its emotional resonance; the rest is frankly too astonishing for words.

At the moment, this may be the stuff of movies ... but, once upon a time, it was the stuff of Washington, D.C.

Scary thought.

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