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Casting doubts

Movies | Actors don't fit their characters in Charlie Wilson's War

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

Who better to end the Cold War for Hollywood than America's Sweethearts? Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts star in Mike Nichol's Charlie Wilson's War, an adaptation of the bestselling book of the same name by George Crile.

Aaron Sorkin's script (rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content, and some drug use) introduces us to Charles Wilson, a real-life 1980s Texas congressman known as "Good Time Charlie" on Capitol Hill for his hard partying lifestyle. A drug-fueled night in a Las Vegas hot tub threatens to ruin him publicly while introducing him to the struggle in Afghanistan that will define his political career.

As a new member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson drastically increased the funds being sent to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and played a large part in the covert war there that helped to topple the Soviet Empire.

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Zipping through the crisis with humor and verve, the film tries to show the quintessentially American story of how a man of excess almost effortlessly felled an empire that was impervious to years of dogged diplomacy.

But Hanks' portrayal dulls the edges of Wilson's freewheeling lifestyle, his innate wholesomeness ruining some of the irony that the film tries to achieve. Similarly, Roberts (as Houston socialite Joanne Herring) cannot break free of her cult of likeability long enough to demonstrate the dangers of her allegiances that Sorkin's script seems intent on displaying.

The only actor getting any traction on screen is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who chews through his scenes as Gust Avrakotos, a rogue CIA operative who approaches Wilson in his desperate attempt to make some progress in Afghanistan.

Differing from most recent war films, Charlie Wilson's War seems clear of any overburdened Iraq metaphors. Until the end. After raising over $3 billion in funds to arm the Afghans against the Russians, Wilson fails to get $1 million to build a school. And we are left with a lament from Wilson: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. But we [expletive] the endgame."


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