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Charlie Wilson's War

It is almost impossible to write about a movie like Charlie Wilson's War without speculating on its eventual place in (or out of) the American pantheon of film, but I shall try, noting only that it makes an unambiguous bid for greatness and that the bid is plausible. Whether Charlie Wilson's War achieves immediate fame, or molders, unappreciated for a generation or two by all but a handful of serious viewers, before emerging (if at all!) as a vital contribution to Hollywood's commentary on American politics that, as they say, remains to be seen.

Directed by Mike Nichols, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and an impressive trio of principal actors that, in the event, turns out to be a little bigger than three, Charlie Wilson's War traces the engagement of the United States in the Afghan revolt against Soviet occupation in the late Eighties, attributing it to the all but single-handed efforts of a Texas congressman. When the Russians withdraw the last troops from Afghanistan, the story is over.

Except, of course, that it is isn't, not at all. What really is impossible is to write about Charlie Wilson's War without thinking of it as the first of at least three pictures about the foreign policies that have both brought us to the Iraqi misadventure and helped to shape the menace posed by Islamic fundamentalism. One imagines a trilogy not because the larger story merits it (although it does) but because Charlie Wilson's War feels from beginning to end like an introduction to something bigger. It doesn't, in other words, feel like the story of Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) himself. When the screen goes dark, only one dramatic event has occurred in his life: he has escaped investigation by (then prosecutor) Rudy Giuliani. His having shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to the mujahideen makes for genuine cinematic excitement, but because even Charlie learns (unlike most of his colleagues) that the retreat of the Soviets is not the ultimate objective, neither his story nor Afghanistan's is closed at the final fade. The loose ends are easily extensive enough to generate a sequel or just a continuation. What, for example, will become of Wilson's aide (Amy Adams) is she prettier than she is competent, or vice versa?

We may not wonder what becomes of Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), the River Oaks socialite who goads Charlie to take action in Afghanistan, but her discovery of the allure of evangelism, and the discomfort that it causes in pre-Gingrich Washington, are ripe subjects for big-screen exploration. There is, honestly, no time for that in Charlie Wilson's War, and Mr Nichols is not to be faulted for "doing more with it." But he has raised the issue, and there is plenty more to show about it.

In a film as short on character development as this one, it's easy to overlook the trajectory of Gust Avrokotos, the equally brilliant and undiplomatic CIA analyst who never seems to take off his aviators. No matter how regrettable the indirect consequences of smart but mistaken policies, it is always satisfying to watch the smartest person in the room seize the chance to take over.

For all of its shortcomings and even the difficulty of determining if they are shortcomings Charlie Wilson's War is a movie that has to be seen because its stars are all doing something at least a little bit new and different. Even when he is angry, Gust Avrokotos is just about the coolest cucumber that Mr Hoffman has ever impersonated; but regular filmgoers will have the embarras de richesse of watching this astonishing actor play three very different characters within the space of two months. And while Charlie Wilson remains a very boyish congressman in his way, Mr Hanks appears to have discarded his way of being boyish. I counted several arresting (and largely silent) moments in which the actor reminded me that Charlie Wilson was the relatively unscathed veteran of some pretty rough tumbles. Ms Roberts, too, has moved firmly into the land of middle-aged assurance, and her Joanne is reminiscent of no other recent film character so much as of Lauren Bacall's Natalie van Miter, in The Walker: it's as though Ms Roberts, too, is going to be playing amazing babes in her eighties. Her role, however, is that of a supporting player; only her superstar status earns her such misleadingly top billing. The ever more interesting Ms Adams, in contrast, carries herself like a lead whose part has been unaccountably edited out. Speaking of "edited out," how could Mr Nichols be so stingy with Emily Blunt's talents? She very nearly erupts from the constraints of her prim suit but it later appears to have come off without much of an explosion. Finally, Ned Beatty reverts somewhat to type after his steely, no-nonsense operator in The Walker; once again, he's an amiable, slightly foolish good old boy. Watching his Congressman "Doc" Long catch the religious infection of a refugee audience in Pakistan, however, is quite a little show in itself. (December 2007)

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