Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Mike Nichols. A frustrating talent with a tendency to make excellent films out of unpromising or asinine material (The Graduate, Working Girl, Wolf) and an equal propensity for screwing up prestige projects (Catch-22, Regarding Henry, Primary Colors). Like too many of his recent films, Charlie Wilson's War has all the visual discipline of a sit-com episode writ large. This film's depiction of the very real, very bloody Soviet-Afghan war is offensively video game-like, and its concluding attempt to swing from, well, swinging good time to darkening political tragedy is negligently curtailed. War suffers from a queasy-making conflict between its ribald, satiric take on a Washington where it takes a coke-snorting poonhound to get anything done, and its sticky Reagan-era nostalgia and clumsy efforts at cue-the-inspiring-music patriotic triumph. Especially in the woefully handled wraparound sequence of Charlie receiving an award from the covert community, which is so broad a reproduction of similar scenes in other films that it felt like it had to be a parody - except it isn't. The punchline you wait for is absent. It's as if to make a film about a situation that all too cruelly bit the hand that fed it, Nichols and Sorkin felt a need to hide behind a platitudinal lip-service to late Cold War doctrine. Nichols' style, resolutely set-bound and far more stagy than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ever was, badly lacks a vivid, context-making dexterity, the feel for time and place, that would back up Sorkin's words with snap of its own.

I might be making the film sound bad, which it isn't, but I am endeavouring to identify its major shortcomings. Aaron Sorkin's witty, hectic screenplay is the major asset, acknowledging its own stylised screwball-politico archness by even having Pakistani soliders speak in his speedy, smart-ass epigrams. The film pumps Wilson's extra-curricular sex life and general propensity for skirt for an oft-delightful shot of Tashlin-esque va-va-voom, with Emily Blunt in underwear and Amy Adam's power skirt and bobbing ponytail enough to drive a hetero guy crazy. But truthfully, apart from the likably dirty scene that introduces Wilson, lounging with Playboy models, strippers, and seedy TV producers, in a Vegas hot tub, the film does very little with its potentially, beautifully subversive take on what constitutes a patriotic, humane man. Tom Hanks is fair in the role, but though he tries, he can't quite achieve either the quick-witted verbal dexterity required by Sorkin's dialogue, or the earthy, sybaritic charm to carry it off. Thus, the film doesn't really get into gear until Phil Hoffman arrives as the foul-mouthed, working class Greco-Pennsylvanian CIA agent with a chip on his shoulder. His first scene is like a fist in the mouth of much modern Hollywood blandness and that of the standard portrayals of the white-bread intelligence services. Without him, the film would be pleasantly watchable; with him it's not quite as instantly forgettable. There's also some sterling character work from Adams, Ned Beatty, Om Puri, and Ken Stott. Julia Roberts, as a wilfull, right-wing, proselytising Texas matriarch, is borderline competent, as always, in a role she's badly miscast in.

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