Blu-ray Review: CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR - Nichols & Sorkin's Confused Flag-Waving Exercise

With the success of The Social Network €“ which snared him an Oscar €“ Aaron Sorkin is again likely to be one of LA€™s most coveted screenwriters. Yet amongst the glorious highpoints of his career there have been a few notable lows €“ well-documented personal troubles, as well as grave artistic missteps. His televisual follow-up to The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was cancelled (cruelly, in my view) midway through its debut season after failing ratings. And then came Charlie Wilson€™s War €“ the only thing the A Few Good Men scribe has ever written that I would actually call straight-up €œbad€. Directed by the legendary Mike Nichols, and starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson€™s War €“ released on Blu-ray earlier this week €“ is a calamitous film: a stylistic mismatch that doesn€™t know whether it€™s an earnest piece of patriotic shlock or a farce in the mould of Dr. Strangelove. The film follows Texan congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) €“ a heavy drinker and serial womaniser €“ who takes the cause of the Afghan mujahideen as his own during their war with the Soviet Union during the 1980s, partly owing to the insistence of a wealthy Christian political lobbyist played by Roberts. Wilson soon becomes horrified that the American government and the CIA aren€™t doing enough to help defeat the Soviet army, so he uses his political capital in Washington to continually raise the CIA's budget in order to aid the Afghans covertly €“ eventually buying them the anti-aircraft missile launchers and automatic weapons they need to win their war. The congressman€™s more salacious side is played up throughout as we see the array of beautiful women he employs in his office (€œyou can teach €˜em to type but you can€™t teach €˜em to grow tits€), among them a no-nonsense secretary played by the ever-watchable Amy Adams. There is also a minor role too for Emily Blunt, as a woman seduced by the politician€™s charms. Charlie Wilson€™s War combines the worst excesses of its three talented main properties to disheartening effect: Nichols as a director, Sorkin as a writer and Hanks as a comic character actor. In the latter€™s case, Charlie is played as a goofy caricature, whilst Hanks€™ affected Texan drawl tramples on Sorkin€™s deft one-liners. It is reminiscent of his performance in The Ladykillers remake much more than it harkens back to his earlier comic heyday, in films like Splash and Big. The star is also said to have insisted upon the film€™s horrendous, tacked on happy ending. Nichols is also an offender as the film is too relentlessly bright and cheerful no matter what is happening on screen. It often feels like a lost Blake Edwards sex comedy. This could be intentional of course €“ to imply the film is an ironic statement on the action taking place. However, if this is the case it€™s misjudged. For instance, as a visit to a refugee camp, which is supposed to horrify Wilson into action, lacks any visceral impact with its lack of darkness and rough edges. It€™s also such a cloying and heavy-handed affair as we see a sombre translator tell Charlie about small children who have lost limbs due to trying to pick up bombs disguised as toys €“ a horrifying idea which is handled clumsily by the film. Worse still, Nichols bewilderingly uses real archive footage during a celebratory, fist-pumping montage of the downing of Soviet aircraft €“ basically urging his audience to cheer at the death of real human beings (portrayed by the film as two-dimensional monsters €“ but more on that to follow). I wonder how an American audience would feel about the use of similar footage from Iraq or Vietnam put to similar purpose? Then there is the main culprit behind this mess: the writer. I bow for no one in my admiration of the first four seasons of The West Wing or €“ more recently €“ The Social Network (my second favourite film of the last year), however the bombast idealism and unpalatable, gung-ho patriotism that defined weaker episodes of his political drama is unfettered here. As is the rampant anti-communism of episodes like season two€™s Somebody€™s Going to Emergency, Somebody€™s Going to Jail. Also in evidence (though in a reduced capacity) is Sorkin€™s wearisome berating of the Christian-right, an ever-present feature of the second half of Studio 60€™s short run. I say €œwearisome€ not because I disagree with Sorkin, but just because his regular, flippant digs are often unnecessary and come over as hectoring €“ and often a little on the nose. It€™s moments such as those where you hear the writer speaking through his characters, at which point investment in them as people is all but lost. However, by far and away the worst thing about Charlie Wilson€™s War is the way it presents the only minor Russian characters €“ a squadron of fighter pilots €“ as vile, inhuman baddies. It makes for uncomfortable viewing as Nichols cuts between a missile launcher being aimed at an attack helicopter and its snarling Soviet pilot bragging about his infidelity and cackling (if he had a Dick Darstardly moustache he would doubtless be seen to twirl it). The helicopters are attacking a village of fleeing non-combatants, so I'm not morally outraged at the thought of them being shot down as an act of defence. But the way it is depicted is as tasteless as it is unnecessary. People die in war, but to revel that fact for entertainment demeans us all. One of the few bright spots is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his energetic and attention-commanding (would you expect any less?) performance as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos - writer of the memoir upon which the film is based. The film€™s few funny moments and one hundred per cent of its entertainment value comes as a direct result of the time Hoffman spends on screen. If you take the film as satirical (and it certainly is, at least in part) then maybe some of these things are forgivable. But with the film as it is - confused and unfunny - these issues totally cripple my capacity to enjoy it. The last-minute appeal to historical perspective in the post-9/11 world, presented in a scene which sees Wilson appeal for development aid without success after the Soviets withdraw, is rendered irrelevant by the cop-out, Star Wars-style ending. Ultimately it all comes across as a flag-waving exercise from a nation blithely ignoring its own muddy neo-colonial history €“ which continues up to the time of writing.


There are no supplementary materials to speak of, unless you count those old DVD stalwarts €œinteractive menus€ and €œscene access€. Charlie Wilson's War was released on Blu-ray this week.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.