Riffling through the stranger-than-fiction files, Mike Nichols has turned up a sensational pitch for his latest. Based on 60 Minutes journo George Crile’s top-selling true-lifer, Charlie Wilson’s War unwraps the ’80s exploits of the titular Texas congressman (played here by producer-star Tom Hanks). Democrat, womaniser and alcoholic, Wilson was also an ardent anti- Communist. Nudged by his moneybags patron/ casual lover Joanna Herring (Julia Roberts), he made an ongoing commitment to aid – and arm – the Afghan Mujahideen’s underdog struggle against the invading Soviet Army. With well-connected CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his wingman, Wilson initiated the biggest covert op in history. The ironic sting(er) in the tale? Charlie’s crusade put high-grade weaponry in the Taliban’s hands...
So yeah, great premise. Great director. Great cast. The film itself? More good than great. Don’t get us wrong; Nichols gets plenty right. Meshing laughter and politics (à la Primary Colors), the veteran director offers the antidote to Lions For Lambs, staying light-footed where Redford was heavy-handed. There are outstanding bits of comic business, notably the showstopper where Hoffman is shooed in and out of a scandal-struck Hanks’ office (A delicious riff on how high-rollers compartmentalise their crises).
Working from a droll, cultured script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), Nichols compacts a doorstop book into a thrifty 1.5 hours. But therein lies a problem: the whistle-stop plot becomes a blur of faces and places, skating the surface of a decade’s events. The last quarter is a particular rush-job; just when a critique of US foreign policy is beginning to crystallise... The End. Meanwhile, for all the colourful characters – ‘jailbait’ secretaries, chess-champ arms experts, belly dancers – the Afghans and Russkies are mostly faceless, the latter portrayed as cackling cartoons in true ’80s-Hollywood fashion.
And then there’s Hanks. He’s not bad – obviously – but doesn’t anchor the picture with the outsized charisma conveyed in Crile’s account of Wilson. You don’t get the full flavour of Charlie’s contradictions. The actor’s bound to sneak onto a few shortlists, but the real gong contender is Hoffman; sly, bumptious and brilliant as a man who knows a man who knows where to buy surface-to-air missile launchers. He brings Gust such gusto that the energy level spikes whenever he’s on screen. Gust Avrakotos’ War it has a clunkier ring, but under the circumstances, might’ve made a punchier film.
Less than the sum of its A-list parts, Nichols' grown-up satire only catches fire when Hoffman's steamed up.