'Charlie Wilson's War" is a film with several missteps. (How are you gonna have a war movie about a politician who shares the same name with the lead singer from the Gap Band, and not include "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" on the soundtrack? How could the filmmakers have missed that golden opportunity?) But perhaps the most glaring and infuriating misstep was having Julia Roberts co-star in this. Man, when did ol' pretty woman become such a noodge on-screen?
She's Joanne Herring, the politically savvy, anti-Communist, God-loving, filthy-rich socialite who aids our real-life protagonist Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks, working the cornpone charm) -- that is, when they're not getting all freaky-sneaky behind closed doors. But every time Roberts materializes in her glorified cameo-of-a-role, with her bottle-blond hairdo, overdone, Texas-fied twang and air of smug entitlement, she stops the movie cold. She's supposed to be smart and sexy, but she ends up coming off undignified and unattractive. ("Sluts," she casually calls a group of ladies as she walks past them in a bar.) Roberts isn't the biggest problem in "War," but boy, is she the most visible.
But enough about her -- let's move on to the story.
During the '80s, Wilson was a Democratic Texas congressman with an all-female staff (including "Enchanted" princess Amy Adams as his chief personal assistant), a party-hearty bachelor lifestyle and a desire to help those whose back was being held against the wall by those Russkies during the Cold War. In this case, the people Wilson helps are the mujahedeen -- Afghan freedom fighters -- by securing covert funds and weaponry so they can blow those Soviets right out of the sky. Along with Herring serving as his Southern-fried Lady Macbeth, Wilson's other partner is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a disgruntled CIA vet who joins this cause mainly to stick it to his superiors.
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Taken from the 2003 book by the late "60 Minutes" journalist George Crile, "War" doesn't know whether to play all of this earnestly or eccentrically, and I'm still trying to figure out who's to blame. (Julia?) Director Mike Nichols mostly keeps things safe and cautious, making this a political satire that's quite aimless.
And while Aaron Sorkin's script appears wordy and erudite, it does occasionally take time out for the same moments of idealistic speechifying and theological debating that made Sorkin's last, failed TV show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," such a chore/bore. Not to mention that the movie pretty much cops out at the end by glossing over that Wilson's noble, patriotic actions may have contributed to the 9/11 attacks down the line. (This was brought to full attention in Sorkin's original draft of the script, but the real Herring reportedly threatened legal action if that draft was produced. So not only is Roberts annoying in the movie, but the person she plays is a killjoy as well.)
But the movie isn't a complete loss. One of the most startling surprises of "War" -- heck, of the whole holiday movie season --is how brilliant Hanks and Hoffman are together. When the playa-rific Wilson first meets the cynical yet crafty Avrakotos, in a sublimely farcical sequence that has Avrakotos darting in-and-out of his office as Wilson powwows with his staff about handling a scandalous situation for the press, they immediately ignite an odd-couple chemistry that makes you feel like Lemmon and Matthau have risen from the dead and inhabited their bodies. The two actors play off each other like devilish co-conspirators. Hanks practically looks thankful that he's working with an actor who challenges him the way Hoffman does. Whenever they share a scene, "War" becomes one of the most awesome movies around.
Then, Julia Roberts shows up and just screws up everything. Dang you, Erin Brockovich!