Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War Charlie Wilson’s War, the new movie from Mike Nichols starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, tells the true story of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks), a hard drinking womanizer who helps fund a covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the early 80s.

Going into it, I had a bad feeling. I don’t know why, but maybe it was because of the buzz that seemed to insist this was some kind of presumptive Oscar favorite long before anyone had even seen it. More than anything though, I think it was the tepid trailer stuffed to the gills with obvious pop tunes. This awful one-sheet didn’t help matters much. The whole thing just felt flat.

Of course, you should never judge a movie by the trailer, ever, but even with an acknowledged weakness for Aaron Sorkin dialogue, I was worried and the opening scene didn’t do anything to make me feel better. It was one of those flashback setups that are getting so boring. Charlie Wilson is receiving a medal for his actions that are about to unfold over the course of the film and of course we’ll return to the same scene before the ending credits. Luckily this bit of business is brief and the movie gets pretty good pretty quickly.

The story follows Charlie from ne’er-do-well to secret hero and it’s a very likeable and entertaining movie that goes down smoothly with just a little bit of bite. Fortunately, the obvious pop tunes from the trailer are nowhere to be found.

I should add however, if you didn’t care for West Wing or don’t like Sorkin’s stylized patter, you might not find a lot to like with this one. I’m a sucker for Sorkin and hearing his dialogue delivered on screen by an excellent cast was a lot of fun. There was some very funny stuff. It’s serious business, but the dialogue is funny as hell. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the CIA agent Wilson enlists to help him was especially good. He was born to read this kind of material. By the way, can that guy get some sort of special award for three superb and completely different performances in one year? He should.

Hanks was his typical likeable self minus a lot of the earnestness that plagues his more serious roles. Julia Roberts was just ok for the most part, and I say this as a guy who generally finds her pretty enjoyable. She plays the Texas millionairess with a knack for raising money for her pet causes.

So far I’d gone from skepticism to acceptance and after it was all over my mood changed again. I found out that Sorkin’s original 145 page script had largely been gutted. I haven’t read it yet myself, but apparently it was a more hard hitting look at the story. For those who don’t remember their current events, we covertly trained, armed and supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. When they succeeded in driving out the Soviet Union, the ensuing political vacuum became a breeding ground for elements that became Al Qaeda and…well…you know who they are.

It’s a little disappointing to learn the movie may have been defanged of some of its political overtones. There are some serious questions to be asked about US foreign policy that I think are present in the movie’s current form, but it sounds like they were much more pronounced in the original script. The result is a lighter cautionary tale rather than some kind of excoriating exposé on our government’s role in the world. I’m guessing it was an economic move by the studio who looked at one Iraq film after another bomb and might’ve had something to do with the long wait before the movie was made available to press types. I wonder if they filmed Sorkin’s script but decided to re-edit it afterwards.

Mainstream types who don’t want to be bothered with too strong of a message and who like lots of witty banter will probably go for Charlie Wilson’s War, especially if they like Hanks. The extremes at both ends of the political spectrum are probably going to be hopping mad. The right will see the movie as blaming the United States for 9/11 and the left will be disappointed the movie doesn’t go farther in holding our government more responsible for its actions. Personally, I thought it was imperfect, but I liked it quite a bit. I’m a little disappointed tnowing what might have been however and we’ll see if my opinion changes when I read the screenplay.

Charlie Wilson’s War opens on December 25, 2007.

10 Responses to “First Impressions: Charlie Wilson’s War”

  1. i have no idea what movie type i am. but i really have zero interst in this. but hey i say the same thing about atonement too. hey…..

  2. There’s a lot of talking. Much of it is funny, but it’s still talking.

    Depends on if you like the cast or not. For me, Philip Seymour Hoffman was worth the effort. Plus it’s only like 95 minutes or something.

  3. I will see this because I can’t ever imagine not watching a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance again. It would also appear that Hanks has shed that boring rich guy Oscar thing that has clouded his work since, I don’t know, Big? Turner and Hooch? That’s why I don’t come down on The Ladykillers as hard as some do, it at least has, if not his best, his most ALIVE performance in the better part of fifteen years.

  4. I’ve always been a quiet defender of Ladykillers 2.0, but I just watched it recently and I have to admit, I’m liking it less and less every time.

    I agree with your point though. Hanks was at his most interesting.

    Wait, did you just make a Turner and Hooch reference? Nice!

    He’s still Tom Hanks though but he’s more likeable rogue and less…well less Saving Private Ryan.

    As a fan of Hoffman, you kind of have to see this. Depending on your take on Sorkin, you might hate it, but you will love Hoffman. I think.

    That was a long rambly way of agreeing with everything you just said.

  5. The perverse law of Tom Hanks movies is that he’s much better in mediocre movies than pretty good ones. Turner and Hooch? Mediocre movie. Also a wonderful Tom Hanks performance. Big? Many would argue that its a great movie, and its fine, but it falls under the Shawshank category of decent movie that is a little too syrupy for my tastes. Still, its another great Hanks performance.

    Hanks is wonderful in A League of Their Own, a movie that makes Big look like 2001 in terms of sentimentality.

    Let’s look at the good movies now: well, I actually don’t really like many of Tom Hanks movies, but the more respected ones: Philahdelphia, Cast Away, Road to Perdition, all feature dull, Respected Actor Hanks performances.

    It’s telling that the closest that Hanks the interesting performer has come to appearing in a film that isn’t crummy is in Hank’ own film, That Thing You Do! But Hanks isn’t in that very much.

  6. I haven’t seen Big for a million years. I remember liking it a lot at the time, but looking back I can see how it probably suffers from Marshall syndrome. Still, he was more deserving of awards for that than for Forrest Retard….a movie I avoided like the plague…for YEARS. Then I finally watched it at gunpoint. I didn’t hate it or anything, which is actually a high compliment considering what I thought of it before I watched it.

  7. Thanks for the typically well written heads up about this one, Craig. My expectations going in will be more aligned now to the scope of its ambition.

  8. I’m going to go out on a limb Sartre and guess that you’ll be able to overlook some of the more obvious flaws (uneven tone, weak Julia Roberts, softball politics) and at least enjoy PSH.

    I could be wrong.

  9. I’m not surprised Charlie Wilson’s War was considered Oscar-bait only a short while ago and after having seen it, I’m even less surprised the hype over it has abated. It’s a good, enjoyable movie with a funny script and some strong performances from veteran actors, but it didn’t feel like anything so overly memorable we’ll be talking about it years from now (or even necessarily in February). Hoffman is amazing once again and I liked the dialed-down performance from Hanks. Roberts is good but she’s not a large presence in the movie’s second half (nor is Amy Adams, which is mildly disappointing). I liked Roberts, which is much better than my typical response to her.

    I’m disappointed to hear that Sorkin’s script may have been gutted or the film as written may have been heavily edited. I was a bit surprised at the film’s length, as Nichols and Sorkin are both known for everything but brevity. I’m not sure why the studio would buy an Aaron Sorkin script on this (or any other remotely political) subject without buying into his politics, but studio execs often make odd choices that I don’t grasp. Maybe Sorkin’s script as filmed was annoyingly over-the-top and preachy and the studio cut it down to make the film more manageable for audiences. Who knows? I’d love to see the Sorkin-version of the script if it were filmed and heck, I’d even be willing to read the script if I could get my hands on it.

    Regardless, we got an entertaining (if not amazing) movie with a standout supporting performance. Could have been much worse, I suppose.

  10. When you strip away Oscar expectations, CWW is a perfectly enjoyable adult entertainment.

    It’s not perfect, it’s a bit of a softball that had trouble finding the right tone (I also hated the bookend awards ceremony business), but it was fun.

    It’s funny though, I normally like Julia more than you Joel, but she didn’t do too much for me here. She was ok, but I wonder if some of her stuff ended up on the cutting room floor.

    Also, as Alison pointed out, the movie was way better than the trailer. I really hated that trailer.

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