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Charlie Wilson's War

"Charlie Wilson's War"
A film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

It's hard to believe there was once a Texas politician who worked hard to regulate utilities, supported the dreaded Equal Rights Amendment and fought for abortion rights as well as a minimum wage bill. This man was also a rip-roaring anti-communist who made a large contribution, so to speak, to the good riddance of Soviet helicopters from the skies over Afghanistan while Washington, D. C., at the highest levels, seemed asleep at the wheel.

We're talking about 'Good Time' Charlie Wilson, the liberal from Lufkin who was the 2nd District Congressman from 1973 to 1997 or as the papers would print it: (D-TX). I couldn't tell that Charlie was a liberal, though, in Mike Nichols' "Charlie Wilson's War," a new satirical movie boasting a weighty cast with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. If I thought all liberal pols drink a lot, snort cocaine and bed their pretty secretaries as well as other young ladies in their wake, I could have made that assumption. But these are the only cues Aaron Sorkin gave me in his script that was adapted from the biography of the same title written (2003) by the late "CBS Reports" and "60 Minutes" reporter/producer, George Crile.

After graduating 8th from the bottom of his class at the US Naval Academy in 1956, Congressman Wilson served in the Navy for the rest of the 1950s and 1960. He was a gunnery officer aboard a destroyer searching for Russian subs. Later he was assigned to a Pentagon intelligence unit that kept its eye on Soviet nuclear forces. Charlie Wilson was well-suited with his weapons savvy to sit on the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee which makes what are called 'black appropriations'---spook talk for getting taxpayer dollars over to the CIA at Langley.

Through his efforts in the early 1980s, Charlie enabled a gob of money to be appropriated so the Mujahideen could get surface-to-air missiles that blew away most of the Ruskie choppers that had been savaging the Afghans. It was the largest CIA covert operation ever---according to the CIA. You get to figure out if that's a fact or not.

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks

Although considerably bluer, "Charlie Wilson's War" is in the tradition of other satirical films that added some fun to serious political problems, such as: "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," "Dr. Strangelove," and the memorable movie and TV series, "M*A*S*H."

In full disclosure, I have to say up front, I've never been a raging fan of Tom Hanks. That's to underscore that I've never seen him better than as Charlie Wilson. He's got it right, not only with his acting talent but his stature and just the way Tom Hanks looks in the part.

Congressman Wilson had a 'partner in crime' in his patriotic escapades during the Soviet/Afghan War. The cohort's name is Gust Avrakotos, a real person who was a CIA case officer and dedicated anti-communist. How could anyone play Gust but Philip Seymour Hoffman? Nobody, so that's who Mike Nichols cast as Avrakotos.

You have a treat in store seeing PSH in this role of a disheveled, wheelin' dealin,' CIA spook of Greek descent who can bug an office in the blink of an eye. Some D.C. people in the film call him Gus Avacados.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman seems everywhere this season in two other excellent films as well: "The Savages," and "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead;" a triple threat come Oscar nominating time, for he is great in all of them, and so stretched from each of the characters he plays in all three pictures.

Movie star Julia Roberts shows up in a part made for her: The sixth richest person in Texas who's up to her ears in high elevation politics. The real woman, Joanne Herring (there must be a red-baiter joke hiding somewhere), is a socialite who's fearful of God and considers herself to be an ultra-conservative. Still, she and Charlie have a little side action going during their campaign to blast the Soviets out of Afghanistan even though Joanne has already given her heart to Jesus. In and out of character, Julia lights up her Nancy Reagan eyes and upstages the cast to beat hell. And that's quite a feat considering she's playing opposite Hanks and Hoffman. The relish is all over Ms. Roberts' lovely visage.

An even more powerful Southern congressman than Wilson depicted in the flim is Doc Long, very well-played by Ned Beatty (Good to see Ned back in front of the camera). Doc Long appears to be a composite of Doc Long (D-LA) who died in 1958 and Clarence Long (D-MD) who was contemporaneous in D.C. with Charlie. I'm guessing Sorkin and Crile both have taken some license to soup up the role to resonate with the Louisana Long Dynasty as in the two "All The King's Men" films.

Interestingly, Doc Long, the US congressman who died in the late '50's was a dentist and also served in the Oklahoma Legislature in the early '20's. Old Doc resigned his seat in Oklahoma City to avoid standing trial due to some kind shenanigans to which he was hooked in the Sooner State.

In one scene of the film, Julia's Joanne finesses old Doc (or so it seems) so slickly it even takes a moment for 'Good Time' Charlie to catch on. Some fun. Joanne is about three steps ahead of every elected public servant in this moving picture.

What's really interesting is that "Charlie Wilson's War" plays much like a sitcom. It could be a sitcom on TV with fresh, fictional stories for each episode just as the crazy, wonderful people involved with "M*A*S*H" did so many years ago with Hawkeye and the hospital gang. Just like "M*A*S*H," "Charlie" would play the comic stuff up against the bloodshed in Afghanistan instead of the trauma unit's bloody surgery scenes within tents behind the lines in Korea. If someone ever makes a pilot for a television series, they might want to call it, "Blue Dog Down and Dirty."

Seldom does Mike Nichols disappoint with his directing. "Charlie Wilson's War" is no exception. It should and ought to be on a lot of Top Ten lists going into the 2008 Oscar nominations.

Finally, Charlie Wilson got into politics initially when he volunteered to work in the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy who was also a rip-roaring anti-communist----in case anyone's forgotten.

"Charlie Wilson's War" preview

"Charlie Wilson's War" official site.
Opens 12/21 at the Hollywood Promenade Palace 12.
Watch Yahoo Movies  for Tulsa theaters & times.
Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net
Copyright © 2007, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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