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Mismatched 'War' seems out of date

December 21, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"CHARLIE Wilson's War" is an anachronism, the wrong movie at the wrong time. Not only does it tell its tale in a style that feels dated and artificial, the story itself focuses on events that history has overtaken. The moving finger has written and moved on, and not even the combined star power of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols can do anything about it.

Based on the bestselling book by George Crile, "Charlie Wilson's War" does tell a most unusual 1980s true story. It relates how Wilson, a pleasure-loving congressman from Texas (Hanks), joined forces with a wealthy and reactionary socialite (Roberts) and a grumpy CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to use billions of dollars in U.S. and Saudi aid to arm Afghan mujahedin, or "freedom fighters," and oust the invading Soviet Union.

Though historians argue over how fatally that loss weakened an already weak USSR, it's indisputable that the shadow of Sept. 11 now hangs over that erstwhile accomplishment like, to borrow an image from our secretary of State, a mushroom cloud.

For the mujahedin became the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11 plotters, and, as Crile writes in his epilogue, "great events have unintended consequences. What no one involved anticipated was that it might be dangerous to awaken the dormant dreams and visions of Islam. Which is, of course, exactly what happened." So what is intended as a gleeful cinematic tribute to American can-do plays instead as an unintentionally sobering narrative of American shouldn't-have.

In theory, of course, "Charlie Wilson's War" could have survived and prospered in the post-9/11 world, just as Crile's book did. But as directed by Nichols from a script by Sorkin ("A Few Good Men" and TV's "The West Wing"), the film undercuts its aims with a play-acting artificiality that is more wearisome than entertaining.

Part of the problem is that the film is not always well-served by its stars, illustrious though they are. It's a tribute to Hanks' acting skills that he does a creditable job as a high-living, wheeler-dealer congressman who just happens to sit at the funding intersection of the State Department and the CIA. But the reality is that casting him as a natural conniver and rogue, "a man of many character flaws," according to no less an authority than the president of Pakistan, is not the best way to go.

The same is true for Julia Roberts, who does not play to her strengths as the abrasive, arrogant dragon lady Joanne Herring, a right wing Texas zealot who helps persuade Wilson to fund the Afghans. The congressman may view Herring as "the sexiest woman ever," but few viewers will agree.

The only actor who comes off well, as he always does, is the redoubtable Hoffman. He gets the best of Sorkin's dialogue as Gust Avrakotos, a gruff, hot-tempered CIA career officer everyone avoids who bonds with Wilson over their mutual desire to kill as many communists as possible.

Overall, however, "Charlie Wilson's War" is glib rather than witty, one of those films that comes off as being more pleased with itself than it has a right to be. It also suffers from being not all of a piece, with mismatched elements struggling to cohere.

What is one to make, in the midst of the film's otherwise nonstop banter, of deadly earnest scenes in a refugee camp in Pakistan, complete with children whose arms have been blown off? These moments are supposed to show us how Wilson got religion about Afghanistan's plight, but their tone is too at variance with the rest of the picture to be effective. Similarly, the film's leering, voyeuristic view of sexuality (Emily Blunt is particularly victimized as a Wilson girlfriend) seems as antiquated as the rest of the production.

Though "Charlie Wilson's War" makes a few attempts near the conclusion to reference the chaos that is to come, they are too little and too late. Harder to deal with is the fact that, because Muslims around the world, as Crile notes, thought the victory in Afghanistan was the work of Allah, "we set in motion the spirit of jihad and the belief in our surrogate soldiers that, having brought down one superpower, they could just as easily take on another." The rest, as they say, is history.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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"Charlie Wilson's War." MPAA rating: R, for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In general release.

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