Ever since it was even announced, Charlie Wilson’s War seemed destined towards Oscar glory. Not only does it feature Academy favourites Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but it is also directed by Mike Nichols of The Graduate fame. Mix in a steaming hot pile of politics and a pinch of American self-guilt and surely you’ve got a veritable behemoth on your hands.
Unfortunately, Charlie Wilson’s War never feels like the sum of its parts, but that doesn’t stop it from still being an absolutely terrific film.
The plot sees Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) launch a covert operation to assist the Afghan rebels in expelling the 1980s Soviet occupation, brushing shoulders with far-right socialite Roberts and bumbling CIA agent Hoffman along the way. As heavy as the story sounds, the film is best watched as a black comedy thanks to a brilliantly dry script from The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, which never fails to underestimate the absolute ridiculousness of the situation.
The film also possesses some fine performances; Hanks, for example, capturing the swagger and charisma of Wilson, even if his character is somewhat unlikeable; it’s hard sometimes to take seriously a man who so casually juggles a wild, cocaine-fuelled personal life with saving the free world. Roberts, meanwhile, is good if slightly unremarkable, her relationship with Hanks sadly underdeveloped as the story progresses. Indeed, this whole plot thread appears to be dropped about an hour into the film. However, the real star of the show is Hoffman, whose ever-sardonic, effortlessly-hilarious maverick steals every scene he’s in- it’s just a shame that there aren’t many. If anyone deserves the Academy hype surrounding this film, it’s him.
However, as important as the film likes to think it is it never really feels truly substantial due in part to a surprisingly brisk running time and an infuriatingly abrupt ending which literally seems to have stopped the film thirty minutes early, it’s supposed conclusion haphazardly splashed on the screen in a direct quote from Wilson in an act which serves only to baffle the audience and leave them wandering out of the cinema confused and irritable. Characterisation, too, is an issue- it’s bad enough that Nichols never really gets his teeth into his protagonists, but the Russians are presented as mere caricatures, with Sorkin stressing that this was simply a war of good versus evil – a decision which is as baffling as it is frustrating.
Nonetheless, for all its faults Charlie Wilson’s War remains a brilliant film while it lasts. As long as you enjoy it for what it is- a breezy, black, political comedy- rather than concentrating on the A-list potential, you won’t regret your time spent in the cinema.