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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Movie Review: Charlie Wilson's War at War With Itself

Movie Review by Noah Mallin

The opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War hits a giddy high that promises the kind of balls-out gonzo politics movie that Bulworth and a very few others have delivered. Texas Congressman Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, is ensconced in a hot tub with two strippers, a Playboy bunny, and a guy pitching a Dallas knockoff set in Washington DC. The whole time he keeps straining to figure out why Dan Rather is on the TV across the room dressed as a Mujahadeen. The rest of the movie has a hard time catching up with this intro.

Tom Hanks has gained a certain Mount Rushmore quality, and I don’t just mean the fleshiness of his jowls. He’s a modern Gary Cooper, the American icon who stands for mom and apple pie. I’m still not sure quite how it happened, probably somewhere between his “aw shucks I ain’t got a brain” turn in Forrest Gump and his everyman leader with a rifle role in Saving Private Ryan. So it’s nice to see him channel the Tom Hanks of Bachelor Party and TV’s Bosom Buddies.

That is to say that he’s an actor blessed with comic rhythms both goofball and martini dry, even as they’ve been misused in the Colonel Sanders’y misfire of the Coen Brothers flop The Ladykillers or left on the shelf in his dour big haired perf in The Da Vinci Code. It’s good to see him back, this time with a down home Texas swagger and a sly intelligence lurking in the recesses behind the folds of his puffy face. His famous charm is key to the Charlie Wilson character and it works, mostly better than the film which is directed by wunderelder Mike Nichols.

While the movie pretends to be a love story between Wilson and icy bible thumping texas millionairess Julia Roberts or between Wilson and the Afghan people, it’s really a romance between Wilson and gruff impolitic CIA wild card Phillip Seymour Hoffman. When those two meet up the sparks fly and they find a fun dizzying rhythm that lifts the whole film.

Unfortunately politics, stock footage and Roberts keep butting their way in. Roberts has a head of hair straight out of the Palookaville theater wig department but she wisely endows her character with bitchy self-righteousness. She’s developed more acting chops than were readily apparent at the beginning of her career. The flipside is that you don’t particularly want to spend time with her.

You do want to spend time with the wonderful Amy Adams as Wilson’s smart clipped assistant. She’s like a feisty self-aware Tracy Flick all grown up and in DC. Most of this is conveyed through Adams expert choices -- character on paper is more of a wisp.

Having read the entertaining book it was relatively easy for me to keep up but the hijinks keep grinding to a halt for awkward exposition. “Why are you telling me things I already know?” Roberts inquires with an impatient purr. Hank's doesn't respond "It's not for you, it's for that durn audience honey..." though he should.

Everything rushes to a conclusion and then slows again so that we get the point that rather than having fun watching Hanks be a charming boozing horndog and Hoffman be a rude boozing horndog, we should be thinking about the unintended consequences of our actions.

A better screenplay would have planted more seeds and allowed the thought to grow organically rather than to have it pop out of a character's mouth but that's not this film. In some ways it's too faithful to it's source material. The verbiage and overexplanations crowd out what works.

Still the offscreen cameos by John Murtha and Rudy Giuliani and scenes like a Hank's first meeting with a bug-planting Hoffman hint at the wacky darkness that could have been if they had just jettisoned those pesky facts and gone for all-out satire.

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