Wednesday, January 9, 2008
If I hadn't known the background of Charlie Wilson's War, I might have been tempted to bolt after the opening scene, when Tom Hanks gets a medal pinned to his chest. In so many ways it's a natural moment for Hanks, what with Apollo 13 and Normandy Beach long added to his considerable list of credits. (Forrest Gump got his medals beforehand.) Yet I had a shudder of recall in thinking about when Harrison Ford -- our last National Treasure, Most-Trusted Actor, and other superlatives -- became the onscreen recepient of apparently one merit badge too many and went into a midlife tailspin: donning a stud earring; dating Lara Flynn Boyle; making helicopter rescues timed to the release of whatever his latest movie. Now in his fifties, Hanks must have decided to heed this cautionary tale and veer away from the Noble Heroes at least long enough to play the title character in this film, a roguish Texas congressman up to his eyeballs in booze, bimbos and drugs, yet who also played a critical role at a pivotal moment in modern history.
Admittedly, the movie fudges on all counts. As it flashes back to an earlier time in Wilson's political career, Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin (the director and writer, respectively) are careful to put Hanks near strippers and cocaine without being directly involved with either. On Wilson's mind at all times is the war in Afghanistan between the invading Soviet army and the Mujahideen, but even as he hatches a complex scheme to aid the latter -- impressively combining the efforts of American evangelicals, the Israeli military, and Pakistani dictators -- the result is rendered as another simplistic Sorkin thesis: money + stinger missiles = voila, end of Communism.
Having said that, Charlie Wilson's War is Sorkin's best piece of writing in years, smart and sparkling in all the ways that last year's TV debacle, Studio 60, wasn't. (Preachiness + Sarah Paulson = not funny.) He may be the best screen collaborator that Nichols has had since Buck Henry, perhaps even better in that Sorkin's idealism dilutes Nichols' cynicism and vice-versa. They do so well by each other that Hanks can be somewhat miscast and still give a jaunty, richly enjoyable performance, and that reliable killjoy Julia Roberts can show up (in a small but key role of Joanne Herring, a wealthy crusading Christian socialite with unusual allies in the Muslim world) and be suprisingly tolerable.
Best of all, though, is Philip Seymour Hoffman. As Gust Avrokotos, the hot-headed yet keen-eyed CIA agent who assists Wilson with his covert plans, Hoffman wears his rumpled suits, walrus mustache and fuck-you attitude as if he's had them all his life. In the movie's best scene (beautifully tailored by Nichols and Sorkin's expert stagecraft), Hoffman is rotated with a phalanx of scantily-clad secretaries in and out of Wilson's office while the latter juggles damage control on a sex-and-drugs scandal with news on the war in Afghanistan. Gust doesn't win a medal in Charlie Wilson's War, but he's the movie's real hero, not only by how he helped to win the Cold War but through his foresight on how we stood to lose the peace.