An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Charlie Wilson’s War; dir: Mike Nichols; starring: Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Ned Beatty, Om Puri, Emily Blunt, Ken Stott, Cert: 15 (2007)
As relevant today as it was 10 years ago (possibly more so) Charlie Wilson’s War is a cautionary tale about the West’s ability to win the war but lose the peace.
If this sounds a tad worthy don’t worry because in the hands of top-notch satirist and director Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson’s War is both a contemporary drama and a political farce in equal measure. The razor-sharp script by the West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin is further finessed by brilliant performances from Tom Hanks in the title role, the then rising star Amy Adams as his conscientious assistant Bonnie and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a belligerent, back-room CIA boffin who can see where America’s war in the Middle-East will lead them.
What is fairly remarkable is that this timely warning about America’s foreign policy is actually a true story – based on the life of a real senator Charlie Wilson, who, by all accounts, was a bit of a playboy and merely did enough to keep his party pals back home happy and voted the way the whips on Capitol Hill wanted him to vote.
Until Soviet-hating millionaire socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) made him take an interest in the future of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the sum total of Charlie Wilson’s political ambitions was to sleep with as many Washington interns and Las Vegas showgirls as was humanly possible and then to keep the Texas ranchers happy.
But, along the way, something unusual happened. He started to care. After visiting the war-zones, after gaining information from CIA loner Philip Seymour Hoffman and being prodded in the right direction by his political assistant, this stopped being a far off war but became a real concern.
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It became a humanitarian problem involving real people and he could see that military might may win the war but it would be humanitarian aid that would not only win the peace but would prevent the US being dragged into future conflicts.
It’s extraordinary to see that the real Charlie Wilson, this dissolute congressman, was able to see these basic home truths in the early 1980s and yet nobody listened. He told Congress that investing in social aid, setting up schools, community centres and improving fresh-water supplies would cost a fraction of a military operation but the money men in Washington were not listening.
The Russians had been driven out of Afghanistan, they had achieved their objective, why should they spend any more money on this desert-ridden back water? As Charlie Wilson explained that a political vacuum had been left. Nature abhors a vacuum unless you fill it with something that is favourable to the US then chances are someone will come along that will resent your interference in their affairs – and so it proved to be.
If the message of this movie is strong then the delivery is witty and lighthearted. The interplay between the various flawed characters is carefully done. It creates the atmosphere of a sophisticated character comedy while allowing world events to gently rise to the surface, almost without you noticing.
Mike Nichols is too wily a director to assault you with a political lecture while writer Aaron Sorkin is too witty to supply a script that’s not bursting with personality and great dialogue which provides the means for Hanks and company to have fun with the characters.
It’s a serious subject but treated in a subversive way – much like Charlie Wilson himself. One joyous exchange between Wilson and his personal assistant Bonnie (Amy Adams) follows his meeting with the Pakistan President. “You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you are told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.”
The sad thing is that having forced America to take the war in Afghanistan seriously – he did it for humanitarian reasons – he was unable to persuade Congress to fund the reconstruction of the country because as they told him there’s no votes in it.
As Charlie himself laments they were happy to spend a billion to fund a war but not a million to build a school. Sadly, history has shown that such a short-sighted policy would come back to haunt them in the most awful way.