From the Archive: Charlie Wilson’s War

There was no question about which director should be represented in this space this week. Sadly, my options were somewhat limited. I would have loved to pull something from my days on The Reel Thing radio show in the early nineteen-nineties, but the only review of a Nichols film I could find tore into Regarding Henry. It’s the height of unkindness to dwell on something that may very well be the nadir of his filmography. (During the span of the radio show, I swear I also wrote about the very fine Postcards from the Edge, but that script seems lost to the wilds of discarded papers.) Instead, I’ll retrieve a review from my former online stomping grounds As it happens, Charlie Wilson’s War stands as the last film of Mike Nichols. Infused with consummate professionalism and a gentleman’s distance (Nichols has no need to desperately impose himself on the work), it is as fitting of a finale as he, and we, could hope for.

The new movie Charlie Wilson’s War gets into the business of government manipulation and deception with a breezy love of the details of backroom deals. This is Aaron Sorkin’s first screenplay since devoting himself to a trio of talky television programs and it bears some of the same committed consideration of the way things really get done in Washington that propelled the Emmy-gobbling “The West Wing.” Sorkin understands that American government runs less on altruism and more on traded favors and cynical pragmatism. When Representative Charlie Wilson talks to a constituent about a pending battle over Christmas decorations on municipal property, the congressman immediately presents the simplest solution, the choice that will end everything right now, rather than the grandstanding, principled stand.

That is in line with Wilson’s central involvement in directing federal funds to support Afghanistan in their war against invading Soviet troops. To a large degree, Wilson is primarily trying to complete the puzzle that will lead to the simplest solution. If the Afghans can’t shoot down the Soviet helicopters, then find a way to arm them so they can do so. Even when Wilson is demonstrating how dire the situation is to his cohorts in Congress, it is a means to the end of getting the committee support he needs. The fact that the puzzle will keep changing, that every problem solved only means there are tougher challenges to be faced, is hinted at by the film.

Mike Nichols is in some ways a solid match for Sorkin. He may not work scenes at the speed that’s become the norm for Sorkin’s recited lines, but he’s always been a director with utmost respect for the text. His best films seem to be about accentuating the writer’s work rather than putting his own distinctive stamp on the material. He allows the film’s densely informative exposition intermingle nicely with the volleys of entertaining banter. He gets consummate pro efforts from Tom Hanks as Wilson and Julia Roberts as a wealthy donor zealously committed to stopping the spread of godless Communism, even if those characters never become completely full-blooded. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is another matter. It’s one of his seemingly endless collection of inventively crafted schlubby misfit roles, delivered with potency and telling attention to the tiniest details (I’m fond of the way he examines the interior of his wallet after paying for a cafeteria lunch).

Nichols’ direction is as smooth as ever, maybe too smooth at times. Even when the camera is plunging into the horrors of refugee camps, the tight control on the images keeps it all from becoming as hard-hitting as it should. The film is smart enough to engage us, but not tough enough to rattle us.

Like a lot of projects that spring from Sorkin’s writing-device-of-choice, it especially falters at the end when he abandons his brisk, wiseacre wit to start underlining his points. The film condenses years of punishing warfare to some stock footage and informational graphics before capping it off with a relevant but leaden indictment of American indifference to Afghanistan after the battle was won. It also feels oddly rushed, as if the filmmakers were wary of being too ponderous when it came to delivering the closing message. It’s a clumsy close to a film that, up until that point, was largely successful in concocting an implausibly entertaining work out of a matter of covert policymaking.