" I don’t want to cross the line, Lou; I just want to move it "
— Dustin Hoffman, Mad City

MRQE Top Critic

November

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Charlie Wilson’s War opens on Texas representative Wilson (Tom Hanks) in a hot tub in Las Vegas with strippers and cocaine. Just another day at work for an American politician.

Commies

Charlie enlists the aid of Gust
Charlie enlists the aid of Gust

Charlie’s job, at the opening of the film, consists of removing the heat from the tempests in teapots back in his home district. But as a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he has some sway. One woman who recognizes this is Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts). A right-wing hawk and a Houston socialite, Joanne throws Charlie a little extramarital sugar to convince him to help her fund one of her pet causes: fighting the Russians in Afghanistan — in 1980 that was the only place anyone was actually killing Russians.

To understand the situation in Afghanistan better, Charlie enlists the aid of a mid-level CIA operative, Gust Avrokatos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, stealing the show). Gust is just as eager to be fighting the commies as Herring, but he’s trapped below a department head who won’t unleash him. So when Charlie promises Gust’s little group a lot more money, he’s in.

Comedy

The movie works best as a screwball comedy and as a portrait of a roguish Congressman (director Mike Nichols started his career as a comedian, after all). The best scene could have come straight from Preston Sturges. Charlie has a preliminary meeting with Gust at the same time his young and pretty assistants are trying to handle leaks about what happened in Vegas. When Charlie’s angels come in to the room, he asks Gust to step out momentarily. When they leave, Gust is invited back in. Do that three or four times, throw in a hidden CIA microphone, and you’ve got the makings of a genuine comedy scene. To make the scene great, all you need is someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman as the foil.

As Joanne, Roberts is sharp, calculating, and dangerous
As Joanne, Roberts is sharp, calculating, and dangerous

Nichols and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt do more with the visuals than most comedies. Best of all, perhaps, is the scene of Herring doing her makeup post-coitally. Here is a woman who just slept with politician to shape covert national policy. She’s sharp, calculating, and dangerous. Nichols films her in closeup, plucking the clumps of mascara from her lashes, a safety pin mere millimeters away from her eye.

Charlie

Hanks holds the center of the movie together, playing up Charlie’s roguish qualities. He’s unapologetic about his drinking and his womanizing, and he’s always happy to give the press a good sound bite in support of that image. Hanks is able to hint at something deeper on a few occasions. At the very beginning (which is a scene from the future), Hanks looks weary and humbled, which doesn’t fit with his persona at all. But the movie pays off that out-of-place emotion at the end with the help of Hanks’ performance.

Charlie is not a brilliant man. But he’s not dumb, either. When he doesn’t know something, he seeks out people who can help him understand things — not deeply, but on his own level. And when recounting a story from his childhood, he drops the word “Dickensian,” referring to a mean old neighbor, so he’s not such a country rube after all, even if he is a womanizing coke snorter.

Strange Bedfellows

Charlie Wilson’s War also offers some pretty good political insight (although maybe that’s too strong a word for a 97-minute popular comedy). It illustrates what strange bedfellows — sometimes literally — politics makes. The point seems to be that if you’re good at it and if you play the game, like Wilson does, you can get things done, even in Washington. You want to move a foot to the East, but you make some compromises and you move an inch. Now you hold on to that inch and you try again. Keep at it and soon the inches add up to the foot you wanted in the first place. Your purist rivals who stand on principle will wonder how you got so far.

Again, the movie’s portrait of the system is overly simplistic, but it’s also refreshingly adult. This is a movie that talks politics and strategy. It explains the details we might not know from history, but it doesn’t dumb things down too much. Nichols expects us to keep up, and it’s pretty fun to play along.

Caveats

There’s quite a bit that the movie doesn’t do so well. For one, it attributes to Charlie alone the defeat of the Soviet empire. Even for a 97-minute comedy, that’s an overstretched oversimplification.

For another, it plays along with Charlie. And while that makes the movie more fun, as Molly Ivins pointed out in her review of George Criles’ book on which the movie is based, we don’t really want to encourage our politicians to conduct foreign policy covertly. When that happens, it almost never works out for the best, even if in Charlie’s case it did (Oliver North and Dick Cheney spring to mind).

Finally, the movie is glib about a lot of things that are actually fairly troubling. Whether you object to cocaine, extramarital sex, sexism, gratuitously violent images, or mixing triumphant emotion with death, you might be a little on edge that Mike Nichols made the rest of your audience laugh when you were squirming in your seat.

If you can get past that, though, Charlie Wilson’s War might be a more entertaining movie than much of the darker, more somber, or just plain worse fare that’s opening this Christmas.