It’s not the surprisingly listless central performance by Tom Hanks, who looks sluggish and indifferent playing the larger-than-life East Texas congressman Charlie Wilson. (The actor’s Southern accent sounds even worse, as if he refined it by watching The Dukes of Hazzard reruns.) And it’s not the self-congratulatory presence of Julia Roberts, who wears an enormous blond wig and unvarying smirk as Houston socialite Joanne Herring. (Roberts doesn’t really act anymore; she just keeps reminding us, as she did in the Ocean’s Eleven movies, that there’s nothing quite so fabulous as being Julia Roberts.) It’s not even the fact that the screenplay, by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, serves up a liberal grandstander’s portrait of Wilson, basically arguing that had Republicans paid closer attention to this fun-lovin’ Southern Democrat, the United States never would have gotten into such a sticky mess with Osama bin Laden.
What makes Mike Nichols’s much-anticipated new drama Charlie Wilson’s War such a resolute bust is that it takes a convoluted and juicy story about money, power, and good ol’ boy politics and renders it lifeless. Wilson, whose escapades have quickly become the stuff of modern Texas legend, was the underachieving congressman from Lufkin who, in the early eighties, joined forces with Herring and a CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos to secure funding for the Afghanistan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union—a critical first step in the eventual dismantling of the Communist bloc. (The congressman’s story was immortalized in a 2003 book by George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War, upon which Sorkin based his script.) The saga might have easily been shaped into a tense international thriller or—as the film’s trailer seemed to hint—a dark political satire about the strange bedfellows we sometimes make in the pursuit of righteousness. Instead, Charlie Wilson’s War, which opened nationwide in December, meanders without purpose or even conflict. Mostly we just watch Wilson and his pals jump through a series of bureaucratic and diplomatic hoops, then pat themselves on the back for being so darn skilled at hoop jumping.
The movie opens with a dewy-eyed Wilson being honored by the CIA for his efforts in Afghanistan, before flashing back, Saving Private Ryan—style, as Wilson remembers the events that brought him to this point. What first seems like an earnest drama, however, quickly morphs into a cartoonish farce: The very next scene, set in 1980, finds Wilson cavorting naked in a Las Vegas hot tub with a group of strippers while discussing the possibility of producing a Washington, D.C.-based variation of the TV show Dallas. Get used to these awkward tonal shifts, because they just keep coming: Some parts play like one of Tom Clancy’s techno-jargon-filled potboilers; others—especially the scenes featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman hamming it up as the insult-spewing Avrakotos—make you wonder if you’ve stumbled into a high-gloss remake of Borat. In short, Charlie Wilson’s War gets off on the wrong foot and never stops wobbling.
As the story unfolds, Wilson—who first learned about the Afghan struggle while watching a 60 Minutes report—receives a phone call from his sometimes lover Herring, the sixth-richest woman in Texas and a staunch anti-Communist. Herring, who is also a vocal, proselytizing Christian, fears that if the Soviets are allowed to take over Afghanistan, the entire Middle East might fall into Communist hands. Working closely with the rule-breaking, mischief-making Avrakotos, she and Wilson hatch a scheme involving the governments of Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia that ultimately allows the United States to covertly fund the mujahideen war effort to the tune of $1 billion annually.
There are all sorts of fascinating subjects to be explored here, including the idea that this episode represents one of the most unlikely alliances between religious and political forces in contemporary American history. A more subversive-minded director and writer might have also drawn out the ironies of Wilson’s character—and perhaps made the argument that our most ethics-challenged politicians are sometimes our best ones. (At the time he was trying to fund the mujahideen, Wilson was also mired in a scandal involving cocaine use.) But Nichols and Sorkin seem to have no perspective on the material—moral, thematic, or otherwise. They bounce from one scene to the next, unquestioningly upholding Wilson as a hero, never digging too deeply and never bothering to reckon with the complexities of what happened after the Soviets retreated. In the final scenes, as Wilson unsuccessfully argues for congressional funding to rebuild Afghanistan—which the movie implies would have prevented the Taliban’s rise to power— Charlie Wilson’s War turns shockingly reductive. Nichols and Sorkin don’t seem to realize that most Americans have spent the past six years acutely aware of the turmoil in the Middle East—and expect at least a somewhat nuanced portrait of the conflicts there.
Is this one of those instances where the filmmakers had so much provocative material to work with that they buckled beneath its weight? Internet rumors have claimed that Nichols was retooling the film as late as November; indeed, vast chunks seem to have been left on the cutting-room floor. (To wit: The Devil Wears Prada’s Emily Blunt, playing the daughter of one of Wilson’s donors, turns up for exactly two scenes, then inexplicably disappears.) Certainly, there are bright spots throughout, courtesy of Hoffman and the fine Indian actor Om Puri, who plays Pakistan’s General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. But Nichols and Sorkin have turned a fascinating chapter of recent American history into something puny and irrelevant: the feel-good story of a Peter Pan syndrome—afflicted ne’er-do-well who went to the