Hollywood stars turn 1980s covert war into 97 minutes of Oscar bait
"Where have you gone, Mike Nichols?" might be the lead line in a negative review of Charlie Wilson's War, Universal Pictures' Academy Award-qualifying release. It won't receive negative reviews, though, because of its pedigree. The director of satiric, acidic baby-boomer classics such as The Graduate and Catch-22, Nichols is the ideal choice to guide George Crile's unwieldy 550-page book and turn it into 97 minutes of movie magic, replete with stars in period garb, limousines, naked girls and hot tubs, and cocktails (in hand) for most of its running length. (Then again, that movie sounds like the cinematic misfire Bonfire of the Vanities.) Tom Hanks' current performance, however, keeps War from veering into outright satire and shows that Nichols can coax an interesting performance from a sly acting icon. Unlike Julia Roberts's mannered take on Joanne Herring, the "sixth-wealthiest woman in Texas," Hanks works his charm to optimum effect, portraying sleazy Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson's rise and fall as he provides Afghanistan with Soviet-made AK-47s and rocket launchers to take on Russia in the 1980s. Wilson is so charming he reportedly dated Nichols' wife, news anchor Diane Sawyer, during the time.
Nichols' last effort, 2004's Closer, was a sharp-toothed dissection of the sexual affairs of upper-crusts. Roberts' performance in that was revelatory-unfurling nasty dialogue with a perfect pitch of disdain and ennui, it showed just how good she can be. In War, though, Roberts appears bored. Her Texas accent drifts in like a bad Melanie Griffith impression, and she is too youthful for the role and not authoritative enough to strong-arm Hanks' womanizing Wilson. He goes along with her plan to "assist the Afghan people" more as a result of Aaron Sorkin's perfunctory script than because of her bravura gamesmanship.
Philip Seymour Hoffman does an excellent job as Gust Avrakotos, the Greek-American CIA operative who enables the largest covert war in U.S. history. His prolonged introductory scene with Hanks, crosscut with a bubbling drug scandal for the congressman, raises expectations for just how funny, smart, and informative this movie could have been. Hoffman's early exchange with his higher-up at headquarters speaks volumes about the differences between white-collar managers and blue-collar workers, even in the elite intelligence services of this country. He bottles up the lightning he released in his over-the-top villainous turn in Mission: Impossible III and channels a fine supporting performance. It's ironic that Hoffman's compromised CIA character has the onerous task of being the moral voice of the rushed finale, but these undercooked scenes bestow a sorely needed gravitas solely provided by his performance.
That is the main problem with the movie: intelligent insouciance. It is something the seasoned pros behind Charlie Wilson's War can effortlessly manufacture and market. Nichols is a crafty pitcher with great mechanics-the windup, the throw-but he now lacks the gas to blow it by you. He is guilty of exactly what Avrakotos warns: He sells the rebuilding efforts short in the late innings. In the age of three-act structure, War simply cannot address the aftermath of Charlie Wilson's efforts. But a movie can't be steered out of big issues by editing past them, as if they don't exist. That's avoidance. Whenever War can turn the screws and tighten up, it goes wan and montagey.
For example, upon Wilson's visit to Pakistan, he is whisked away to an Afghan refugee camp with his assistant Bonnie (Enchanted's Amy Adams). You feel something trying to happen, a statement of some kind-and then, nothing. It turns into a limp montage of Wilson walking around witnessing the horrors of Soviet brutality. Later, Osama bin Laden joins the Afghan forces and War goes into ultra-flash-forward mode to propel itself into a medal ceremony-honoring Wilson as an American hero, an unfortunate framing device-that bookends the movie, one of many clichés the filmmakers decided to use in a movie that could have spoken with a pressing urgency, instead of a casual conscience. Considering that the alliance Wilson formed with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel resulted in the current web of allies in the war on terror, you might hope that Nichols would have delivered a punchier movie. Instead, it's a just another day at the ballpark. ★