Charlie Wilson’s War, the new film from director Mike Nichols and West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, begins in one of those cavernous military airplane hangars, the kind so gargantuan you feel like you can’t actually look all the way to the other side. Across the floor, the camera slowly glides toward Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a Democrat from Texas, who is speaking from a portable stage. He’s just a speck in the center of the frame, but behind him hangs an enormous American flag, one whose presence dominates the room. It’s a striking image, and an apt one as well, the great big symbol and its tiny representative: Even as a congressman, he’s just a little man almost completely dwarfed both by his country and the ideas it stands for.
It’s also a fitting picture of the film itself, a relatively small, and too often small-minded, movie that attempts to wrap its arms around a sizable chunk of America’s foreign-policy history. By the end of the film, Wilson has proven himself a rather savvy defender of what he sees as America’s ideals. Sorkin and Nichols, however, are less successful. Though intermittently amusing, War is unconvincing and largely superficial, marred by Sorkin’s various tics and hampered by the competing interests of public accessibility and political passion.
Partly this is due to Sorkin and Nichols trying to pack too much into too short a running time. Sorkin has a reputation for writing very fast dialog, but it’s just not quick enough to do more than gloss over the issue at hand. The story, which is loosely based on true events, centers primarily on Wilson’s efforts throughout the 1980s to fund the arming of Afghanis under siege from the Soviet Union. As Sorkin would have it, Wilson, a mildly corrupt, carefree congressional bachelor (much of the exposition occurs while he’s immersed in Vegas hot tub with a pair of Playboy bunnies), saw a short report on the evening news, made a few inquiries, hopped off on a jaunt to Pakistan, and then decided to do everything he could to push for more funding and better weaponry for the Afghan fighters. The assumption, essentially, was that the Cold War couldn’t be fought in the open, but the U.S. could kill Commies by proxy — and under Wilson’s direction, it did.
Sounds familiar, does it? That’s not surprising, really, because we’ve all seen this scenario before: The cocky, carefree protagonist stumbles on an international political cause and decides to make his empty life mean something. (Was this, perhaps, ghostwritten by Michael Gerson?) And, because even Tom Hanks needs sidekicks, he’s flanked on his journey toward meaning by a quirky male friend and a strong-willed woman. In this case, that means Gust, a temperamental CIA agent played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a feisty conservative — or, as the film would have it, “ultra right wing” — socialite from Houston.
All of this is delivered in a style that will be familiar to anyone who’s caught even a few minutes of The West Wing, Sports Night, or any previous Sorkin production. There’s a zesty, high-energy tone to the proceedings, and every scene is laced with impassioned, suspiciously well-prepared monologues and rat-a-tat dialog that ricochets off the walls until finally coalescing unexpectedly into some sort of a (hopefully) stinging point.
Rousing dialog has always been Sorkin’s forte, and here it zips along, half clever quips, half easily Googled statistics, nimbly dancing from topic to topic. Some of it’s rather funny (Hanks is asked “Why is Congress saying something and doing another?” to which he responds, “Well, tradition mostly.”), and it might be impressive, except that Sorkin can’t control it. It’s not just a trademark, it’s a tic. In Sorkin-land, every single person talks in smarty-pants bullet points, as if he lives in a world where all people, the world over, might as well be Simpsons writers with post-graduate degrees in economics. It’s one thing to give us a smart-aleck congressman and a handful of wisecracking CIA officers; it’s quite another when Pakistan’s top political and military officials snark through a diplomatic meeting like overeducated Gawker contributors.
Equally problematic is that not all of the performers can deliver Sorkin’s zippy chatter with the requisite flair. Sure, Philip Seymour Hoffman pulls off a pitch-perfect wonky Washington weirdo, chewing through his lines with the gawky ferocity of an exotic animal on the hunt. But this is hardly a surprise considering Hoffman serves up stunning performances like McDonald’s serves up hamburgers. Hanks, however, has always excelled at taking underwritten parts and imbuing them with a kind of everyman’s grace. But, as he showed in the Coen brothers’ Ladykillers, he’s got little talent for upbeat, rhythmic dialog. As for Julia Roberts, I just wonder: Could anyone really find her believable as a rich, tenacious, religiously conservative political powerbroker? Let’s just say her performance will make you pine for the days of Mystic Pizza.
Fortunately, Roberts has far less screen time that one might expect given the magnitude of her star power. Perhaps this was a result of the changes made to the film after its real-life subjects complained about their portrayals, but it also seems possible that it’s due to a problem more endemic to the film. Roberts’s high-powered, southern, Christian conservative seems at least partially intended to be a disreputable figure engaged in all sorts of hypocritical behavior, talking about honor and Christian morals on one hand while casually sleeping around and cashing in political favors on the other. But the rules of Tinseltown don’t allow Julia Roberts, as the pretty-faced female lead, to really be all that slimy. She’s Julia Roberts fercryinoutloud! The audience simply has to be able to identify with her. So we get the setup for the character, but no payoff.
In fact, a similar confusion infects the entirety of the film. Sorkin never shied from making his straightforwardly liberal sentiments a core part of The West Wing. Aside from a few outliers, you could pretty much define that show’s moral center by looking at the Democratic-party platform. In fact, this arguably made the series better. For one thing, it directed its obvious underlying passions toward an actual political target rather than some vague sense of change. And for another, by never claiming to be politically neutral, it could be judged on its own terms.
Here, perhaps because of the aforementioned changes, Sorkin’s politics seem constrained, hovering in the background, but never made fully clear. He clearly wants to come out and blame American foreign policy (and especially conservatives like those represented by Roberts) for fueling, through arms and cash, the rise of the militant Islam in Afghanistan (and thus, by implication, for 9/11), but he flakes out, choosing only to vaguely point toward some possible connections.
Whether to blame the last-minute edits, studio worries about problems of controversy and mass-accessibility, or just plain poor screenwriting isn’t clear. But no matter what, the result is a movie that spends a lot of time indicating that it has something really important to say, but never quite comes out and says it. Instead, it just sort of limps along and hopes you’ll get the idea. Some might call this tactful, but too often it comes off as merely timid, a needless and dishonest dodge that keeps the film from ever living up to the grandiosity of its ideas. Say what you will about Sorkin’s politics, but in this case, the decision to be less liberal has actually made his film worse.