Charlie Wilson's War

Paul Yim Paul Yim: (paulyim-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-05-02 00:42:59

Charlie Wilson's War - Rank B

Charlie Wilson's War, directed by Mike Nichols and based on the book by George Crile, is the story of how a little-known country called Afghanistan defeated the goliath Soviet Red Army and changed the world, as we knew it, forever. In order to understand the sheer magnitude of that statement, consider that the Soviet Union was the second superpower out of two – number one being the United States of America – and that Afghanistan was often confused with its more prominent neighbor Pakistan. And, although completely unfair, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan is long remembered as the proverbial straw that broke the back of the Union into pieces. Americans often erroneously compare Afghanistan as Russia's Vietnam – as in Vietnam War – but no Vietnam vet ever had to endure the shame of bringing about the collapse of their country! It was quite a shock to see column after column of Soviet armored divisions leaving Afghanistan with their collective tails tucked between their legs.

The adapted screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame. As you would expect from a Sorkin penned script, it is peppered with witty banter and statistics and figures that fly across the room like so much machinegun fire from the actors' mouths. I have to hand it to the man: he can write funny dialogue that doesn't sound like a gag-a-minute truck rumbling around every corner of the set. And it doesn't hurt that he's got some proven veterans of the silver screen saying his lines. Tom Hanks plays his usual likable self as Charlie Wilson, Julia Roberts doesn't embarrass herself as a rich Texas patron of little known causes, and Ned Beatty throws in a convincing cameo as an aging congressman. But the real treat is Philip Seymour Hoffman - transformed into CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. He doesn't bat an eyelash as he delivers one of the greatest “fuck off” performances to a boss that I've seen in years. If you ever want to be able to tell your boss to go fuck himself/herself, always remember this simple rule: know who they're sleeping with.

The movie isn't all shtick. After all, it is about a war – albeit a cold one – and wars, in a word, suck. There's a sequence where Charlie gets to visit a refugee camp on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and the images of suffering really bring home the truth of war: bullets and bombs may decide the outcome, but the outcome is always the same for those caught in the middle. As I saw the images of people fighting tooth and nail for a measly bag of rice and crying women burying their children (I could go on, but you get the idea), I couldn't help but be struck by this weighty thought: as I'm writing this – this very moment – there is someone in Iraq fighting for a meager bag of rice, there is someone in Darfur burying her child, and Afghanistan is still a country caught in the throes of conflict. This is where the movie began to fail me, and I blame Sorkin.

Aaron Sorkin seems to have this amazing knack for unveiling the heart of a complex political situation. We effortlessly slide into the shoes of the protagonist as he is confronted with a real problem that has no easy answer. We cheer him on as he wrestles with himself to do the right thing, even though doing it will bring dire consequences upon himself or his loved ones. This is all well and good until Sorkin decides, all by himself, that it's time to resolve the situation and hurriedly wraps up the protagonist in an American flag. That's essentially what happens at the end of this movie. And that's why it gets a B. Enjoy the performances, but be prepared to be underwhelmed at the end.

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