Film Review: Charlie Wilson's War

by Pat Johnson

It's a movie about politicians helping a war-torn country fight Russia, but the creators didn't want the movie to be a one-way ticket to downersville, so there are plenty of pretty faces and amusing quips to distract us from how terrible the subject matter is. For fans of Sorkin and Hanks, the witty barbs and sly grins may be engaging enough to warrant a watch. However, painting a historical drama with a sitcom brush feels a little like taking the picture of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing napalm attacks and photo shopping it to make it look like it was drawn with colored pencils (Atrocities are less horrifying when they're pastel). To give you a more contextual example, in one scene of comic mischief, two conversations play out at the same time, with Hanks bouncing between a gaggle of busty secretary's and one grumpy spy. The scene was funny and efficiently moved the story along, but the attempts at light-heartedness felt misplaced when juxtaposed with Afghan women cradling wounded children. I don't mean to imply that they're running the images of busty chicks and dead kids side-by-side, but constantly trying to keep the movie from feeling too serious only makes the whole mix feel a tad glib.

In terms of acting, Hanks adds a healthy dose of charm to his role, making the character easy to like, despite being summed up as a womanizing political drunkard. If you love or hate him, chances are this movie won't change your opinion either way. Julia Roberts is a limp noodle with bad hair. Her character's presence in the movie is meant to be a powerful female figure contrasting Charlie's busty angels with brains and class. Unfortunately, she sleep-staggers through the part without smiling or being interesting. She's a big name, but she doesn't add to the plus column. Phillip Seymore Hoffman, on the other hand, does. Every scene he's in has him breaking things, yelling at people or being cruelly funny. He's the pulse of life that prevents this movie from seeming half-hearted.

Charlie Wilson's War is a fine, but very talky picture without the tears required for drama or the bullets needed for action. Like the West Wing, the film runs the risk of losing people when it becomes too message-driven or self-congratulatory. However, Wilson doesn't overstay his welcome long enough to let that happen. It does end with a message, which I appreciated, if for no other reason than to give me a conclusion that's more complicated than: 'war sucks'. Its light approach to a serious topic keeps it fun and engaging and as long as you don't mind war politics playing out with dialogue and character, rather than explosions or tears, you could do a lot worse for your holiday dollar.