CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A Universal release. 97 minutes. Rating: NNN
Mike Nichols is a hard director to pin down. Sure, there’s a link between The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and maybe even Closer, but what’s the common denominator between those movies and Silkwood, Wolf and Biloxi Blues? And here’s a shocker: he wanted Dustin Hoffman to star in First Blood, the original Rambo movie. Imagine.
But he’s also one of the handful of major American directors with the wit and confidence to direct political comedy. Rent Primary Colors. It holds up.
There’s a touch of John Travolta’s likeable Governor Jack Stanton in Charlie Wilson, the real-life good-ol’ Texas member of Congress played by Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War. Charlie drinks scotch in the morning as if it’s coffee, cavorts in hot tubs with Playboy bunnies and employs a staff of sexy, long-legged women. (I counted blonds, brunettes and redheads, so I guess he doesn’t discriminate.)
And then he finds redemption in a big cause. It’s the early 1980s, and Wilson attempts to raise funds to arm Afghanistan’s mujahedeen rebels so they can fight off the invading Soviets. He’s aided by wealthy right-wing Houston socialite and his sometime lover (Julia Roberts) as well as a sloppy CIA bureaucrat (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Aaron Sorkin’s script, based on George Crile’s non-fiction book, is highly entertaining in the way it moves in and out of the corridors of power and the bedrooms and ballrooms where deals often get closed. Early on, someone pitches a TV series for Wilson to co-finance as “Dallas in Washington,” and that joke’s like an elbow to the ribs for Sorkin’s West Wing fans.Now in his 70s, Nichols directs with the airy lightness of a Frank Capra. Scenes have snap, and one setpiece in the middle – where Wilson and his assistants are trying to do damage control on a sex-and-drugs scandal – is as impeccably timed as one of Nichols’s radio sketches with Elaine May.
Hanks seems more comfortable than ever, as if he’s relishing not having to play morally righteous for once. And Hoffman, pre-Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and What Not To Wear, makes his sartorially challenged strategy guy ultra-watchable.
Nichols and Sorkin are less successful when they have to trek to Afghanistan. The film’s emotional tone changes, and the coda, which sheds some disturbing light on the current war, isn’t handled too gracefully.
A note: my friend and colleague John Harkness was supposed to write this review. I know he liked the movie a lot, and I was looking forward to what he had to say – in person and in print – so I could see it in a whole different light. I know this won’t be the last time I’ll ask myself, “What would John think?”
Don’t be surprised if the pic scores a best picture nomination (it won’t win), or if Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman get supporting nods (although PSH delivered equally great performances in The Savages and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead). The director category is pretty competitive, so Mike Nichols might be shut out, but Aaron Sorkin, no stranger to awards (The West Wing), could score an adapted screenplay nomination.