Having been positioned as one of the late-year Oscar hopefuls, "Charlie Wilson's War," like so many films of the last twelve months, grievously disappoints. Instead of being just mediocre, however, this one is an outright bomb, calling to mind Tom Hank's infamous 1990 picture, "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Director Mike Nichols (2004's "Closer
") and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (TV's "The West Wing"), adapting from a book by the late George Crile, get nearly everything wrong. The serious subject matter of the Soviet's invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s is washed over to make room for a cloying and artificial comedy fraught with unfunny one-liners, animated acting, one-note characters, and a script that is as empty as it is distinctly apathetic.
Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) has two soft spotswomen and boozeand surrounds himself with enough of both to last a lifetime. Inspiring him to take action and help the Afghan Mujahideen in their losing conflict against the Russians are wealthy Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts)his sometimes bed buddyand conformity-smashing CIA op Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Together, the three of them pull off the most covert war in history, leading to the Afghan's defeat of the Soviet Union and, unknowingly, setting the stage for a far more tragic future.
There is no doubt a compelling film to be made about Charles Wilson and his steps in helping out a foreign nation that does not even know where the aid has come from, but "Charlie Wilson's War" isn't it. Thinly written and so ineffectively helmed by Mike Nichols that the act of watching it is akin to waiting for a freshly-painted white wall to dry, the movie alternates between dull and aloof with precious little in between. The premise is interesting in and of itself, but there is no passion, depth or enlightenment involved in the way it is told. Late in the picture, Charlie is sobered when his listless fellow congressmen mistakenly refer to Afghanistan as Pakistan. While this makes a powerful point about the U.S. government's lack of knowledge about what is going on in foreign countries of the world, director Nichols is no better than the people he chastises. Throughout he shows barely any concern at all in the Afghan citizens' plight, using them more as a plot device rather than human beings with emotions.
That there are no characters to connect to or care about is also a major problem; everybody is either inexcusably underdeveloped, lazily characterized through other people's gossip about them rather than through onscreen behavior, or shaded with broad strokes. In a rare off-day, Tom Hanks (2006's "The Da Vinci Code
") is miscast as Charlie Wilson, too savory and innocuous to believably portray a womanizing, alcohol-swilling congressman of the south. A couple moments in the third act where he is shown sitting alone with tears in his eyes is not enough to depict him in three dimensions.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (2006's "Mission: Impossible III
") embraces the colorful, bawdy personality of Gust Avrakotos, but that is all he has to do; there is nothing behind his character's eyes beyond what is jotted down on the page for him to recite. As the physically elegant Joanne Herring, Julia Roberts (2003's "Mona Lisa Smile
") wafts in and out of the proceedings every twenty minutes or so for a few brief moments and has little to do but act sassy and/or conceited. Joanne's relationship with Charlie is so barely there that his line to her near the end, wistfully confessing to her that he's never loved anyone as much, holds no weight. And, coming off of her star-making performance in "Enchanted
," Amy Adams is criminally underused as Charlie's devoted aide Bonnie. Adams has a fair amount of screen timemore than Roberts, evenbut not a single thing is ever learned about her as a person. The fault lies not with Adams, who is fine, but with writing that is neglectful of the emotions behind a person's professional exterior.
When "Charlie Wilson's War" switches gears during the last fifteen minutes in a bid for historical importance, it comes as a joke. At no point before this has the audience been sincerely asked to sympathize or identify with what has been on the screen, so why start so late in the game? If the film was intended as satire, it should have been more pointed and clever. If it was intended as a serious docudrama, it shouldn't have been overwhelmed with cutesy dialogue and such a superficially flighty tone. A forgettable and too-glossy piffle posing ridiculously as Oscar bait, "Charlie Wilson's War" tells a true story that warrants more respect than this lifeless, frivolous drudge of a final product.