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CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty
Director: Mike Nichols
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 102 Minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2008

“What is U.S. Strategy?”

“Well, strictly speaking, we don’t have one. But we’re working hard on that.”

“Who’s we?”

“Me and three other guys.”

Film ****

There are few films that are this terrific on multiple levels. Charlie Wilson’s War has got a top-notch cast, a well-noted screenwriter and a first rate director. A movie with this much talent in front of and behind the camera tends to not be as exhilarating as expected, but this represents a rare case of such a film resulting in something really phenomenal.

Headlining the cast are three Oscar-winners in the form of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Oscar nominees Amy Adams and Ned Beatty are amongst the supporting players. Behind the camera, you have none other than Mike Nichols directing and the screenplay being penned by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men and created the acclaimed television series The West Wing. Put these talents in the blender and out comes pure gold.

In a year that showcased a number of films dealing with politics and war, Charlie Wilson’s War for me came out on top as the absolute best of the bunch. What made this one stand out from the rest was its unique blending of comedy and political history. And when the film is over, we realized that the story we’ve just experienced is a precursor to where we’re at now.

The setting is 1980, and the situation in Afghanistan between the Afghans and the invading Russians is growing more hostile. One glance at Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks), and you would never think he would be one of the masterminds of a covert war against the Russians. After all, in the opening scene of the movie, Charlie is seen converting with strippers and drug users in a hot tub in Vegas.

But since Charlie has just been named to the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, the time’s as good as ever to get involved and do something. The budget for opposing the Russians is at 5 million, and despite Charlie being able to double that money, it’s not going to get anything done. At the request of a colleague, right-wing socialite and Afghan sympathizer Joanne Herring (Roberts), Charlie pays a visit to the refugee camps in Afghanistan to see for himself the damage done to the people.

He comes back to Washington with a new strategy in mind, and one to ensure the rid of the Russian invasion. The strategy: to provide the Afghan Mujahideen (freedom fighters) with weapons that are sure to bring down Soviet helicopters, most notably missile launchers. Before long, and with the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), Charlie has funded a covert war that results in over $500 million of aid to Afghanistan.

At the heart of the film’s strength is Sorkin’s screenplay, which is adapted from the best selling book by George Crile. Sorkin’s script mixes in elements seamlessly. The film is both an authentic behind the scenes political film (particularly in the scenes that show how the covert war is crafted behind closed doors), and a furiously funny character-based comedy all at once (the first scene between Hanks and Hoffman is one of the funniest sequences ever). This is a testament to the strength of Mike Nichols, who also directed the heavily underrated Primary Colors, which mixed in similar elements beautifully.

The film adds on another level of importance when you take into account how the events in this movie are directly linked to our troubled war in Iraq. And yet, it’s never a preachy movie like most politically charged films tend to be. It just tells the story of a congressman who did what he felt, and what we can see, was the right thing to do. His efforts did change the course of history, and resulted in unfortunate consequences. The final quote, from Charlie Wilson himself, sums everything up perfectly.

The acting is nothing short of outstanding. Tom Hanks, following a most disappointing turn in The Da Vinci Code, turns in another terrific and memorable performance as the title character. But it’s the hard to recognize Philip Seymour Hoffman who walks away with the movie in an Oscar nominated performance. It’s yet another brilliant performance that demonstrates that Hoffman is one of our most gifted chameleon-like actors. 

From beginning to end, Charlie Wilson’s War is a tremendously entertaining, magnificently written, wonderfully acted and frequently funny movie. Those elements are truly hard to mix in a single movie, but Mike Nichols pulls it all off flawlessly. It ranks with the likes of Bulworth and Primary Colors as one of the best political comedies I’ve ever seen.

Video ****

Universal delivers a most phenomenal looking disc. The anamorphic presentation is nothing but top-notch from beginning to end. The picture quality is tremendously clear and crisp, with a great level of image detail (thanks in large part to the great cinematography from Stephen Goldblatt). Colors are bright and striking, as well. Nothing but high marks for this presentation.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix is quite lively for what is mostly a dialogue-driven film. But various set pieces help in providing terrific background sound, and numerous sequences of war footage add a great deal to the surround sound quality.

Features **

This disc includes two behind the scenes featurettes; “The Making of Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Who is Charlie Wilson?”, which takes a look at the real life Texas congressman.

Summary:

For me, Charlie Wilson’s War is a film with both an entertaining and thought-provoking value that’s hard to resist. It’s not everyday you get a film with so much talent linked to that ends up being something this phenomenal. I can’t recommend it enough!

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