Here's a movie directed by Mike Nichols, scripted by Aaron Sorkin, and featuring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead roles. It's a film which deals with a period of time that has become a critical turning point in recent world history, and the true story it's based upon seems to contain enough unlikely developments and larger-than-life characters to make the transition from page to screen an absolute breeze. So why does Charlie Wilson's War feel so unsatisfying? There's no doubt that this is a piece of filmmaking in which there's a lot of fun to be found – but take another look at the talent involved, and take another look at this story. We have been given a decent enough romp for our viewing pleasure, and I think we're entitled to ask: is that all there is?
We first meet Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (played with laid-back charm by Hanks) in 1980, sitting in a Vegas hot tub surrounded by strippers and models. One might imagine there'd be enough there to keep him occupied, but Charlie's attention is suddenly taken by a conveniently-placed television which is broadcasting a news report from Afghanistan, detailing the sorry situation faced by refugees fleeing from the marauding Soviet forces. Exasperated by the pitiful levels of support the US is offering to the Mujahedeen insurgents, Charlie – with the help of a wealthy socialite (Roberts) and a disgruntled CIA operative (Hoffman) – masterminded a covert operation to supply the Afghans with the weaponry and training required to take down the helicopters that had been massacring their people. The process involved a lot of political string-pulling from Charlie, with Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all being persuaded to join forces in this effort, but eventually they prevailed, and in 1989 the Soviet troops were finally forced to withdraw from Afghanistan.
What drove Charlie Wilson to do such a thing? Why did this Texan Congressman suddenly feel such a need to help these downtrodden people on the other side of the world? Charlie Wilson's War never really gets under the skin of its central character's motivation. The scenes in which Charlie visits an Afghan refugee camp to hear horror stories from scarred and limbless children are cheaply manipulative, and other sequences where we see Charlie crying alone in his hotel room seem to be reaching for emotions the film hasn't taken the time to explore. Instead, we are asked to simply enjoy the ride as this lovable rogue and his unlikely partners pull off their elaborate ploy, but the shallowness is irritating. Charlie Wilson's War suggests that United States' major failing was its reluctance to help stabilise the Afghan region after this conflict, and in its final scenes the film draws a line between this period and the current war on terror; but these aspects of the film feel rushed and tacked-on. All we get is a speech from Hoffman about unforeseen consequences, and then the film closes with a quote from the real Charlie Wilson which reads: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. And then we fucked up the endgame".
As a slice of undemanding entertainment, though, Charlie Wilson's War goes down easily enough. In its best moments – like a brilliantly choreographed sequence in which Charlie tries to hold two separate meetings in his office at the same time – the film develops a lively momentum. The screenplay is full of smart dialogue courtesy of Sorkin, and Nichols keeps things moving in a fluid fashion, even if his handling of the combat scenes (an unsuccessful blend of stock footage and shoddy reconstruction) leaves a lot to be desired. But it's Philip Seymour Hoffman who brings a real spark to the movie, even if the part of Gust Avrakotos is hardly a stretch for him. The best scenes in the film are the ones in which Hoffman and Hanks are allowed to play off each other, both displaying deft comic timing and turning in relaxed, appealing performances, which is more than can be said for Julia Roberts, who seems pinched and awkward in her role. There are fine actors peppered throughout the film's supporting cast too, although it's a sin to waste someone as lovely and talented as Amy Adams in the meaningless part she is given here.
Charlie Wilson's War is a fairly enjoyable ride, then, and it certainly is a rarity these days to see a star-packed picture such as this wrapping things up in a skimpy 97 minutes, but it seems to ultimately lack a sense of purpose. It gives us Charlie's story in an easy-to-swallow fashion but, once again, we have to wonder if the people involved in this movie couldn't have come up with something a lot more substantial. The glib, cartoony tone Nichols and Sorkin have adopted sits uneasily with the weight of the events they're describing, and it results in a picture which fails to satisfy and which is unlikely to live in the memory. There's a lot of untapped potential in this project, but – after getting their hands on a great story and pulling together a terrific cast – one can only conclude that the filmmakers have fucked up the endgame.