Back in 1980, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) was a Texan congressman who liked to spend his time living the high life, with politics a frequent second place to having a good time. That was until he was in a hot tub with a TV producer, a Playboy model and a couple of strippers, half listening to the producer's pitch of a soap opera like Dallas set in Washington, when his attention was captured by the images on the TV screen above the bar. They showed newsman Dan Rather in Afghanistan, and Wilson wondered what the news report was about; it turned out to be something of great significance to him and his career, which was the Soviet invasion of that country...
The echoes of the past into the future are what bothers Charlie Wilson's War, a biting yet deceptively easygoing examination of how United States foreign policy as seen through their covert actions can have far-reaching effects. It announces itself to be based on a true story at the beginning, and certainly has the ring of truth about it, perhaps not in strict adherence to documentary realism, but more to the spirit of the age it depicts and the personalities involved: the real Wilson said he didn't have any complaints about his portrayal, but then, when you're being played by one of the biggest movie stars who ever lived, why would you?
Hanks brought his customary charm to the role, suggesting a smart man who was always on the brink of getting out of his depth, but with a liberal conscience which both helped a lot of people, and ironically placed a lot more in danger. When he feels he can do something for the Afghan people, he almost immediately tells those he can influence to up the budget for Afghan aid from five million dollars to ten million, but even that amount is still paltry if he wants the Soviets beaten. To Wilson, it's the equivalent of putting a ten dollar bill into a charity tin, it salves his troubled mind, but is more of a gesture than a big help. However, it does bring him to the attention of a very right wing political pressure group led by ex-beauty queen socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).
Although Wilson is apparently on the other side of the political spectrum, he and Herring have common ground, except she sees beating the Soviets as a religious war, and he sees it as providing succour to the oppressed. If writer Aaron Sorkin wanted to illustrate how close supposed left and right were in the mainstream American political arena, he succeeded to an extent, and his time spent on the good seasons of The West Wing serve him well in depicting those corridors of power. As for director Mike Nichols, he seems on comfortable ground with the banter, although the self-satisfaction of many of the characters tended to bleed over into the tone of the movie; granted, they got their wake-up call eventually when their funding of the Mujahideen led to global terrorism.
But the events of September the 11th 2001 are the elephant in the room that obviously being set in the eighties, Sorkin can only reference obliquely, even if we are well aware what is being inadvertantly established here. There's also a sense that this is America saying, hey, you ungrateful lot of terrorists, we gave you all that money and assistance and you threw it right back in our faces, and you're never sure if the film is being self-aware in this indignation or if it really means it. If politics leaves you cold, then you might not get along with Charlie Wilson's War, but for those who like to see an exceptional cast get to grips with intelligent, fast paced dialogue - C.I.A. man Philip Seymour Hoffman is worth catching this for alone - then you can at least appreciate the skill that went into making it. If there's more "I told you so" about it than any constructive suggestions, then that's because the situation is so hellishly complicated. Music by James Newton Howard.
German-born director in America who was part of a successful comedy act with Elaine May. He then turned to theatre and film, directing sharply observed dramas and comedies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22 and the controversial Carnal Knowledge.
After the flop Day of the Dolphin, his output became patchier, but The Fortune, Silkwood, Biloxi Blues, Working Girl, Postcards from the Edge, Wolf and Charlie Wilson's War all have their merits. On television, he directed the award-winning miniseries Angels in America.