by HELEN GEIB
Charlie Wilson’s War is Aaron Sorkin’s telling of the United States’s covert involvement in Afghanistan’s war of resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Boasting a powerhouse cast headlined by Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the film is a glossy and amusing history lesson.
Charlie Wilson (played by Hanks) was a House representative from Texas and member of the Congressional sub-committee with funding authority over covert intelligence operations. The story tracks his growing commitment to the cause of Afghan resistance, encouraged by Texan millionaire activist Joanne (Roberts) and cemented by an emotional tour of a refugee camp in Pakistan. He enters into a productive partnership with the CIA through the medium of Gust (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), responsible for Afghan operations, and converts his sub-committee’s chairman (Ned Beaty) to the cause through a pilgrimage to that same refugee camp.
Sorkin is best known as creator and principal writer of The West Wing, and the movie bears more than a passing resemblance to that show. It centers on a flawed liberal protagonist, has an abiding interest in the practical realities of closed door legislative operations and elaborate back corridor political maneuverings, and boasts sharply witty dialogue. This is a well made film with undeniable entertainment value. Given the sorry state of Americans’ knowledge of foreign affairs, it undoubtedly has considerable educative value as well.
It is simultaneously a failure. The characters are little more than caricatures enlivened by charismatic performances: Charlie the career politician and philandering chauvinist whose liberal conscience is re-awakened to its moral responsibilities by the suffering of the Afghan people; Joanne the wealthy, born-again Christian, anti-Communist zealot; Gust the cynical, yet still deeply patriotic intelligence professional. We learn precious little more than that about any of them, not even Charlie, though his metamorphosis should be the dramatic heart of the movie. Speeches and one-liners substitute for character development.
Also problematic is the film’s superficial examination of American foreign policy in the era of Islamic fundamentalism. The Taliban and the September 11 terrorist attacks inevitably hang like a dark shadow over this story. Sorkin is aware of that shadow, working in referential bits of dialogue and a final predictive colloquy between Wilson and Gust. But he does not go deeper, and the material demands more than simple acknowledgment.
At the very end of the film, Sorkin invites the audience to conclude that the American taxpayer could have bought world peace with post-war Congressional appropriations for asphalt and pencils for the Afghans. Charlie Wilson’s War is a good enough movie that it deserved better than to end on a glib platitude.