Movie review: ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

If you ever want to see two superb actors put on a show, you don’t have far to look – there’s always great films to find at the drop of a hat. However, there are those somewhat overlooked or outright overlooked films that bring out the best in two stars. So, today I’m writing about “Charlie Wilson’s War” in which Tom Hanks’ superb performance is overshadowed by the one given by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was nominated for an Oscar for it. It’s kind of a political movie wrapped in espionage intrigue with an attempt at a somewhat exotic lifestyle mixed in. It all works in legendary film director Mike Nichols’ last effort. Unfortunately, it didn’t generate buzz at the box office and Hoffman lost out to a great but not-as-good effort by Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.”

‘Charlie Wilson’s War’
(2007; 102 minutes; rated R; directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts)

WINNING A COVERT WAR, BUT FAILING IN THE END

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more opinion, additional trivia and the updating of links on Jan. 9, 2018.)

If you ever want to see one of the best several minutes in American cinema, then look no further than the early meeting between Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” They meet about a covert war against the Soviet Union just as Hanks is being investigated as a member of Congress doing drugs in the presence of people being investigated by the feds.

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Director Mike Nichols spins his tale, which is based on the true story of former U.S. Congressman Charles Wilson of Texas, with his usual competence and the Hanks-Hoffman meeting and then their work for another 15 minutes is just pitch-perfect and simply the best reason to watch this film. The entire effort is solid if not great, but these two actors fencing with each other and those in their respective worlds is just great filmmaking. Hoffman nabbed an Oscar nomination for his work here.

Charlie Wilson’s War” is the story of how the U.S. began supporting and drafting other support for rebels in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union invaded and did a military occupation of the country. The story extends throughout the 1980s and it has twin spots of focus: one on Hanks as “U.S. Congressman Charles ‘Charlie’ Wilson” (I use quotation marks around names since this designates a character – even though it is a real person) and the other on Hoffman as CIA agent “Gust Avrakotos.”

Hanks’ politician is a partier, but someone with a streak of humanity and toughness that comes through after he visits the border of Afghanistan on a fact-finding mission. Enter Hoffman, who is a CIA agent in disgrace after a volcanic verbal attack on his boss (twice). Hoffman is licking his agency wounds working the Afghan desk in an effort to help the rebels fight the Russians.

The two make an unlikely pair, but become uniquely effective in putting together a covert (that’s secret to you and me) international coalition that sends guns and money to the Afghan rebels. Hanks does his part in the halls of Congress while Hoffman makes sure the right stuff is getting into the right hands.

At the end, the war is won but Hanks, warned by Hoffman, sees that the commitment to war isn’t the same to peace and finds himself losing the bureaucratic battles he once directed in getting funding for the Afghans. Hanks ultimately earns a special honor from the CIA for his work with them.

The film doesn’t go as far as the book on which it’s based in making a link to the rebels’ victory to the emergence and strength of a leader named Osama bin Laden. Well, that’s another story for another day, I’d say. As a footnote: the real Wilson died in 2010 at the age of 76.

  • Two-time Oscar winner (and three-time nominee) Hanks is at his affable, tough best here – I’d say even as good as is turn in “Apollo 13” but not so much as his work in “Saving Private Ryan.” He knows how to relate to a character and deliver pitch-perfect emotion in just the right way at just the right time. In a different turn, Hanks was totally hilarious in “Bachelor Party” (click here for my review) and was even just as different in the wonderful chick flick “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review). He won for the execrable “Forrest Gump” and the dramatic “Philadelphia” and was nominated for two of my favorites “Cast Away” and “Big” and for “Saving Private Ryan.”
  • I just cannot say enough about Oscar-winner Hoffman’s work here. He is verbally volcanic, profane and intelligent. He is forceful, he is funny (he pays a witch to cast a spell on an idiot boss) and, most of all, he gives an Oscar-worthy performance and got the nomination. Hoffman was able in his career that started with a “Law & Order” episode in 1991 to evolve from one character to another with apparent ease. His work showed almost an almost effortless method of acting, but you know it wasn’t as easy as he made it look. Hoffman was also in “Scent of a Woman,” nominated for two other Oscars and won one for “Capote.” Hoffman’s death in 2014 caused problems in the production of one of the films in the “Hunger Games” franchise, of which he was a key character. He died at 46 of acute mixed drug intoxication. Sad. Truly sad in the same manner as John Belushi’s life ended.
  • The most underappreciated work is by five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams as “Bonnie Bach,” who is Hanks’ chief assistant. Adams’ work is nearly the equal of the Hanks-Hoffman duo and in many ways the equal, but not all. She conveys the smart, tough legislative assistant and she manages to look up in admiration at part of her boss but down at his indiscretions. Adams is so wonderfully smooth that you probably expected to see her in the halls on Capitol Hill after the film was released. She earned one Oscar nod for her work in “American Hustle” as well as another (along with Hoffman) in “The Master.”
  • It’s unfortunate that Julia Roberts is a main player here and her overrated skills as an actor is why I reviewed Adams first. I believe Roberts doesn’t bring much of anything to the role here of society queen “Joanne Herring,” who was a champion for the Afghans long before many even thought about them. I’m not sure which actor could have done a better job, but throw a dart at a board full of names and I’m sure whomever it hits would have been able to elevate the role. Roberts is most recognized from “Pretty Woman” as well as … ah, I don’t care and I’m not going to spend any more time on her or her career.
  • The least recognized excellent effort is from veteran character actor and Oscar nominee Ned Beatty, who plays “U.S. Congressman Doc Long.” He’s the head of the subcommittee that funnels money and arms to the Afghans and without his support Hanks couldn’t get the plan off the ground. Beatty is wonderful as the somewhat clueless politician who turns into the voice of freedom fighters. Beatty has 164 credits over five decades of a variety of film genres from crime in “The Big Easy” (click here for my review) to comedy in “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield (click here for my review).
  • Four-time Emmy nominee John Slatterly, who made a mark with TV’s critically acclaimed “Mad Men,” plays CIA divisional boss “Henry Cravely.” It’s a wonderful name for a spiteful bureaucratic toad who earns the wrath of Hoffman. At the end, he’s actually somewhat praising Hoffman as he dons a Santa suit for the CIA office Christmas party (neat little touch there, Mr. Nichols). It’s a tribute to Slatterly’s talent that he can so capably project this kind of character while holding his own acting with Hoffman in the office scene. He has also been in “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Iron Man 2.”
  • Finally, jumping up out of an enormous list of supporting cast of actors, is Christopher Denham, who plays CIA analyst “Michael G. ‘Mike’ Vickers.” It’s a small role, but Denham does a solid job that is noticed. He was also in “Argo” and “Shutter Island.”

For all the superlatives I’ve given “Charlie Wilson’s War,” it didn’t make a splash at the box office. It came in 40th at the box office for 2007 films with $66.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide, it made $119 million on its $75 million budget, according to Wiki (and the Russian government did not allow it to be released in theaters there). The No. 1 film was “Spider-Man 3” wit $336.5 million and here are the films from that year that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Nichols’ real name was Michael Igor Peschkowsky.
  • Adams’ character as Hanks’ top aide is Hollywood fiction. The real Charlie Wilson had a man – Charlie Schnabel – as his top aide. I hope he was as competent as Adams conveys in her role!
  • Directly from  IMDb.com: “Towards the end of the movie, Charlie Wilson is presented with one of the Stingers he helped provide to the Afghanis. In an interview, the real Charlie Wilson said the Stinger is one of his most prized possessions, kept in ‘a very honored spot in my home.’”
  • Charlie Wilson faced a charge of DUI hit-and-run on the Key Bridge in Washington D.C., but was never indicted.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “In addition to the lifestyle portrayed on screen, Charlie Wilson had a DUI Hit-and-Run charge on the Key Bridge, outside Georgetown. He was never indicted; otherwise, he would have been far less successful securing money for his project in Afghanistan. The History Channel documentary about his life suggests that he drank that night (and other nights) to ease the pain he felt for the Afghan people.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015, 2018.
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