Spy 100, #68: Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) is a curious film, an Aaron Sorkin script largely populated by non-Sorkin-ish actors (with apologies to Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman), and dealing with a subject not exactly tailor made for Sorkin’s highly stylized dialogue and sense of humor: the covert U.S. war to support Afghanistan in their war effort against the Soviets in the 1980s. As an unlikely blend of subject matter and approach it’s not entirely unsuccessful, but it’s certainly an odd bird.

Texas senator Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a smarmy, sexist liberal hawk, whip-smart under his hedonist lifestyle. On a whim, he doubles the CIA intelligence budget against the Russians in recently invaded Afghanistan — which doesn’t help them much, but does put him onto the radar of a wealthy, right-wing activist named Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts). A militant anti-communist, Herring maneuvers Wilson into meeting with the president of Pakistan about the severity of the situation on their border, and Wilson — along with his erstwhile aide Bonnie (Adams) — is so moved by the plight of the Afghanis that he undertakes to clandestinely support their war effort with every means at his disposal. To that end, he liaises with curmudgeonly CIA officer Gust Avrakatos (Hoffman), and they work together to secretly get the needed weapons to the resistance fighters, meanwhile escalating Soviet defense spending to unsustainable levels, which contributes to the collapse of the USSR.

Sorkin and director Mike Nichols bring an oddly cheerful, rah-rah aesthetic to this period piece biopic, which has all the earmarks of a bitter, grim spy tale but doesn’t play any of them up. Unlike Sorkin’s The West Wing (which it resembles in tone), it’s hard to determine which political end of the spectrum the film is playing to; if this covert war is depicted as something of a Pyrrhic victory, it’s also shown as a heroic effort to down an evil regime, and the bizarre tone makes the message seem a little muddled. (I’m not well schooled enough in the history here to know how accurate the depiction of events is, which makes it even harder to render judgement.)

Hanks performs adequately in the lead role, although he’s definitely not a natural as a “bastard with a heart of gold;” as a persona, he might be just a little too nice-guy for this. He’s also not a natural with Sorkin dialogue, nor is Roberts or most of the cast; there’s a certain rhythm to Sorkin’s writing that only Adams and Hoffman seem adept at rendering. (The great Hoffman, by the way, is easily worth the price of admission.)

In the end, I enjoyed Charlie Wilson’s War without loving it. If nothing else, its oddly upbeat tone makes it a refreshing change of pace to the genre’s characteristic cynicism.

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