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picture - Charlie Wilson's WarFilm Review

by Kevin Bowen

published December 31, 2007


Charlie Wilson’s War

rated PG-13

now playing nationwide


In his book Charlie Wilson’s War, the author George Crile introduces Congressman Charlie Wilson while he relaxes in a hot tub at a Vegas hotel, stark naked.  He has two friends with him. The former Miss Georgia.  Also naked.  And a small supply of cocaine. The moment becomes the book’s first action scene, as the feds bust in as he sticks his little white friend up his nose.


The film version of Charlie Wilson’s War starts in the same place. Sure, the lovelies are there, naked, but Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) has his eye on Dan Rather. And sure, the boob-job brigade is snorting coke. But not Charlie. Which is about as believable as Bill Clinton saying he didn’t inhale (which, in fact, became Charlie Wilson’s real-life legal defense ).


I don’t believe a film should follow a book to the letter. And I don’t hold a film to a strictly faithful presentation of history. But the All-Americanization of Charlie Wilson does something more disruptive.  It makes the story boring. None of the missing debauchery would matter, except that it’s kind of the point.   


Wilson was an instrumental figure in funding, through the CIA, the Afghan revolt against the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country. The Muslim insurgency struck a major blow to the Soviet empire and hastened the end of the Cold War. It also provided startup funding to groups of murderous holy warriors who would come back to haunt America. In effect, Charlie Wilson stood in between the laudable ending of one war and the accidental launch of another.


The real Wilson, captured in Crile’s breezy reporting, was the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, law-skirting, skirt-chasing Congressman that no one wants representing them.  Although in truth a skilled politician, he carved an image of the larger-than-life of the party. The kick of the book comes from the fact that such a scandalous figure could summon the skill, gumption and commitment to help end a struggle that experts expected to last forever. The book proves the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. The film proves the same point, but only by being fiction that fails to be strange enough.  


So why does the movie play down his alcoholism, erase his drug use, give him about 62 fewer girlfriends, and make him almost presentable for dinner? I suspect that it starts with Hanks, who showed the wisdom to buy the book’s rights but failed to see he was unwilling to do what was needed for the role. More than likely, he was more interested in streamlining Wilson with his All-American image than damaging it by offending the audience. Likewise, how much fun would it be to see Julia Roberts, as far-right Texas heiress Joanne Herring, dressed in cammos, ducking in the bushes, doing guerilla warfare drills out in the sticks? More fun for us than her image handlers, I suspect.


The challenge facing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (the former “West Wing” guru) is converting the labyrinth of Congressional obscurities into something digestible and exciting for the viewer. Sorkin proves a wizard at it. In fact, he’s too good at it. The film brings an enormous amount of clarity to the actions of Wilson, Herring, and explosive CIA agent Gust Avrakatos (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).Yet the film feels more interested, as we suspect Sorkin is, in politics than partying.  


Director Mike Nichols does create some reasonably good comic exchanges – bits of dialogue, and a nicely drawn-out in-door-out-door comedy routine. Hoffman’s glass-shattering introduction lays out his character’s humor and scariness. Roberts has an ear and eye for the details of Steel Magnolias.


I would complain about the film’s period detail, if I saw much evidence of its existence. Never have I seen a film more in need of a Rubik’s Cube or Donkey Kong in my life. It also assumes a level of Cold War knowledge that I wouldn’t expect from today’s teenager, who likely thinks a “defection” is something that would send you to the toilet or the emergency room.


The film is trying to avoid the quicksand fate of other recent “sand” movies, which have been shot up as badly as Baghdad. Like a skilled politician, this one emphasizes the upbeat buddy humor and avoids at all costs giving the impression of a lecture. It wants to inform as it entertains.  It’s effective to an extent. But it should be much more.  


kevinbowen @




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