America doesn’t do satire. You can’t be raised on Disney and hate yourself. Comedy is fine. The Three Stooges are fine. Chris Rock is fine (as long as he’s not in a movie). But satire is comedy’s mutant half-brother. And you’ve gotta hate yourself a little to do satire. Hate yourself, and yet – allow only you to hate you. Satire is proud. Its self-loathing comes from a deep knowledge of self… It comes from Britain, the empire that lost. If the Brits had made Charlie Wilson’s War it would be about the Falklands – and it wouldn’t be half so much fun. It’s not that Charlie Wilson’s War is a bad movie, it’s just not the satire it wants to be. It’s a comedy; satire made nice.
In 1980 Congressman Charlie Wilson saw a news story about the war in Afghanistan and decided he wanted to help the Afghans. Spurred on by an ultra-right-wing socialite and a belligerent CIA veteran, Wilson funnelled money from the U.S. Covert Operations budget into a kind of Afghan weapons drive. He equipped the Mujahidden with surface-to-air missile launchers, and, before the decade was out, Afghanistan had routed the Red Army. Of course, once the war was over, Afghanistan fell into a decade-long civil war, followed by seven years as the world’s foremost terrorist camp. But the post-war bit is the reason you and I have never heard of Charlie Wilson. If his story had ended in the 80s (as the movie does) he’d be a hero.
Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson like the smartest guy at the Playboy mansion. This is latter-day, do-as-I-please Hanks. He’s long past his Biggest Movie Star in America phase, and he seems pleased not to have to embody the soul of a nation anymore. Forget Forrest Gump. Charlie Wilson is about as innocent as a dildo. He’s big on sex, drugs and alcohol, and he doesn’t mince his words either (Charlie on secretaries: “You can teach them to type, but you can’t teach them to grow tits.”). Hanks laps up the role. Whether he’s lying in a hot-tub with a bevy of strippers or groping Julia Robert’s ass as he exits a ballroom; he’s a happy lech.
Julia Roberts isn’t too bad. Her haughtiness makes sense in this role. As a Texas plutocrat with more connections than Kissinger, she has no need of her regulation “crying scene” to make us like her. She’s a bitch who loves Jesus. “Likable” isn’t in her lexicon. Fresh from retirement, Roberts looks damn good for 40, and she’s back with Mike “Closer” Nichols, her director-of-choice cum father-substitute, for whom she seems willing and eager to push herself. This isn’t an Erin Brockovich “damn it, I’m Acting here!” performance, but the role needed someone with Roberts’ pedigree to make you feel her influence.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (high off an Oscar and fully aware these are the salad days) plays a CIA vet like a CIA vet. The dark glasses, the gut, the wrought iron mustache… the man might as well walk on with a length of cheese-wire wrapped round someone’s throat, he’s that much the professional killer. Hoffman specializes in teary weirdos and fat angry nutcases. Gust Avrakotos is one of the latter. From the start he’s splashing f-words across his bosses’ office: bellicose, crazy, the sort of guy who must be right if he’s got license to act so dumb. There’s a bit of Gene Hackman in Hoffman’s best performances. Here he’s like “Popeye” Doyle reborn.
So Charlie Wilson’s War isn’t a satire. What of it? Why does it matter? I’m not about to say movies have a moral imperative, even movies that deal with real events. Movies are here to entertain, in general, and Charlie Wilson’s War does that fine. It’s just that… I don’t think it should be over-praised for that. When you make a perfectly acceptable comedy (There’s Something About Mary for instance) there’s a sort of in-built cap on praise, and so there should be. Charlie Wilson’s War isn’t a satire because it ends somewhere nice and safe. It could have viewed Charlie as a misguided fool, but that would be mean (both to Charlie and to us), so instead the movie cheers America. Satire would dictate you looked at the consequences of Charlie’s actions. Charlie Wilson’s War says “gee whiz!” and stops where America won.