In the 37 years since Robert Altman and Ring Lardner Jr. brilliantly enfolded politics, war, cynicism, and satire by bringing Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H to the screen, countless other filmmakers have tried, but largely failed, to replicate the picture’s distinctive sensibilities. Effortless as it may have seemed at the time, juggling wry political commentary and social satire without veering completely into the realm of self-defeating parody is a delicate and tricky task. The latest such effort, Charlie Wilson’s War, is an apt case in point, a story that ought to have been ripe for both timely commentary and pointed satire, yet which, even in the hands of capable and seasoned veterans, fumbles a promising first half by eventually veering too far in the other direction, sacrificing cynicism for seriousness and prematurely detouring the story to tediously underline what the rest of the film had already made abundantly clear.
At the time, of course, M*A*S*H, was essentially perfecting a series of formulas already honed by previous efforts like Catch 22 and Dr. Strangelove. But it was the Altman film from which subsequent filmmakers drew their greatest inspiration, delivering such intermittently praiseworthy but uneven pictures as Wrong Is Right, Deal of the Century, Wag the Dog and, more recently, Lord of War. Indeed, in light of the hyper-seriousness of most post-9/11 War on Terror-themed pictures—no fewer than a dozen of which have graced American screens in just the last three months—few would argue that a new M*A*S*H is already long overdue. Unfortunately, Charlie Wilson’s War isn’t likely to scratch the itch.
Directed by Mike Nichols and adapted by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin from the bestselling 2004 book by 60 Minutes producer George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War has no shortage of credentials. The story, which details efforts by the eponymous Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) to turn the ’80s-era Soviet occupation of Afghanistan into a Cold War proxy war, is undeniably fascinating, particularly in light of that action’s direct correlation to the rise of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. There are other cheeky threads connecting that period to the present as well, with peripheral references to a young prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani and the overthrow and execution of former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—father of Benazir Bhutto. But such details are little more than winks and nods, at least for the first 45 minutes, which details how a whip-smart hell-raiser like Wilson was able to work a small miracle with relatively little help apart from the support of wealthy Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and a gruff, caustic CIA agent named Gust Avrakatos (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The triumvirate of Oscar winners is the film’s real saving grace, for without them—particularly Hoffman’s uncannily brilliant scene-stealing—there might be little reason for most audiences to bother seeing the picture in the first place. With them, the dry ins and outs of geopolitical deal-making take on an almost sexy veneer—that is, until the time comes for Wilson to start pulling the strings he has so painstakingly put into place.
Precisely why the film flat-lines at the halfway mark, after such a promising lead-in, will be cause for much speculation. There’s little doubt that Crile’s book provided enough material for a meatier second half, at least as thick with irony as the first. A proper payoff, however, would have required a considerably longer running time, likely exceeding two hours, which would suggest some degree of studio interference, possibly even a mandate that a marquee pairing like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts not exceed the coveted 100-minute mark.
Whatever the reason, the saddest irony is that Charlie Wilson’s War ends up following an artistic tack not unlike the political tack it aims to depict—a well-intentioned and initially successful campaign ultimately undone by short-sightedness and bureaucratic meddling.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty, Emily Blunt and Om Puri
Director: Mike Nichols
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Producers: Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman
Genre: Historical drama
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: December 25, 2007