Charlie Wilson’s War

Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



3 July


President Carter agrees to topple the Afghanistan government, 1979

On this day in 1979, a US president whose reputation seems to rest on his profound desire to avoid conflict (see the Iran hostages crisis, a story told in Argo), signed a directive which would provide secret aid to opponents of the government in Kabul. The government, controlled by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was pro-Soviet and socialist, and Carter’s help consisted of funding the Peshawar Seven, one of two groups collectively known as the Mujahideen (the other, the Tehran Eight, was funded by Iran). The intention was to roll back Soviet influence in the area, after Soviet forces had entered the country, “to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible” in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor. The billions of dollars in aid led to the Mujahideen becoming a crack fighting force, well supplied, and able to hold off the Soviets for ten years, in the so-called Soviet War in Afghanistan (also known as “the Bear Trap”).




Charlie Wilson’s War (2007, dir: Mike Nichols)

Here’s a film that tells the whole messy story of United States foreign policy vis a vis Afghanistan, but tells it as a David and Goliath tale of one small guy battling insuperable odds. The guy is the eponymous Wilson, a Texas congressman who went on a protracted charm offensive to get the Afghanistan aid budget (ie military spending) upped from nothing to gazillions in an attempt to get the Soviets out of the region. It’s an extremely interesting period – as the Cold War starts turning in favour of the USA and people are just beginning to think in terms of “the end of history” – but director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin don’t try to bamboozle us with dates, geopolitical machination or grand theory. Instead they give us Tom Hanks – the man who explained survival in space in Apollo 13 and the Second World War in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers – playing Wilson as the charming old rogue he was. Opening scene: we meet Wilson in a jacuzzi, with some girls, a hillock of cocaine, a bottle of bubbly, having a good time. Brilliant. A typically Sorkin-style got-it-in-one piece of shorthand that requires no further elaboration – Wilson is seedy, intelligent, fun, principled (the dialogue tells us), fast-talking, sex-obsessed, and possibly looking for some grit in his oyster. And as good as Hanks is in this, and he is very very good, Philip Seymour Hoffman is even better as the sweaty low level CIA wonk whom Wilson gets promoted, the better to help Wilson get what he wants. Watch Hoffman deliberately gabbling his lines, his character almost falling over himself in an effort to please Wilson, the gravy train that this overlooked man thought would never arrive, and we’re watching a masterclass in desperation.
That’s the film, boiled right down, a series of encounters between one man or the other, and various other parties who have to be flattered, fended off, misinformed or lied to. This is where Julia Roberts comes in, as a rich socialite bankrolling Wilson because she hates commies, is a personal friend of Pakistan’s General Zia and, like Wilson, is probably a bit bored. Around the edges are Amy Adams, as Wilson’s bright fixer, one of an office full of good looking girls dubbed Charlie’s Angels – Wilson likes his girls. And there are meetings with people in bars, in refugee camps, in bland hotels in nameless parts of the world. It’s classic Sorkin, walkie-talkie writing, in other words – smart and expository, telling us just enough to keep us moving forward, adding a piece of the jigsaw here and there, but leaving it to us to connect them up. As with The West Wing, viewers should not come to Charlie Wilson’s War hoping for insight. This is not Geopolitics 101. But it is Screenwriting 101 – United States foreign policy in the region boiled down into one man. There’s even a bit of criticism of US foreign policy – that they shoot, then leave, behind them a mess that only gets messier after they’ve gone.
But for the most part it’s a celebration of a moment when America suddenly realised it had all but won the Cold War – a euphoric period that continued until 9/11 – when global forces were at such a point that one man with a very persuasive turn of phrase could really change the way things were done. Who’d have thought the creation of the Mujahideen could be this entertaining?



Why Watch?


  • Another great Hanks character
  • Part of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy
  • Smart Aaron Sorkin writing
  • Another fine political film from veteran Mike Nichols (Primary Colors)


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Charlie Wilson’s War – Watch it now at Amazon





Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



27 February



Elizabeth Taylor born, 1932

On this day in 1932 Elizabeth Taylor was born, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, UK. Her parents were American, originally from Arkansas, and her mother was a former actress. Often considered the last true star of Hollywood’s golden era – before TV made inroads in the 1950s – Taylor’s career started when she was nine, with There’s One Born Every Minute, followed up two years later with Lassie Come Home. Then came National Velvet, and at the age of 12 Elizabeth Taylor was a star. She remained, partly thanks to her violet eyes, double eyelashes, pale skin and shock of dark hair, an iconic star until she died. Her most significant run of films came in the mid/late 1950s, when she made Giant with James Dean (1956), Raintree County (1957) with Montgomery Clift, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Paul Newman, all of which earned her Oscar nominations, as did Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Butterfield 8 (1960) which finally won her an Academy Award. Always a reluctant actress, Taylor became famous in the 1960s for her marriage to Richard Burton, in the 1970s for her marriage again to Burton, in the 1980s for her Aids campaigning work, and from the 1990s onwards for simply still being around – she had been an alcoholic, addicted to sleeping pills, had had a brain tumour, skin cancer, broken her back five times and had survived life-threatening pneumonia twice, once while making her most famous film, Cleopatra (in fact you can see a tracheotomy scar that the pneumonia necessitated in some of the shots). She died in 2011.




Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966, dir: Mike Nichols)

We’ve all had nights like these but there are very few films about them. We turn up at someone’s house for dinner only to realise we’ve arrived at a delicate time. Our hosts’ relationship is in trouble, they’re drunk and instead of the evening of food, drink and convivial chat that we expect, we’re ushered into a war zone. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George the married couple – she’s the daughter of the college president where he is now a professor sitting pretty. Meanwhile George Segal and Sandy Dennis play the young faculty couple invited over after a campus party for “one for the road”. It is Segal and Dennis who get to wear the tin hats and duck. When the film first came out, its censor-busting ripe language and its portrayal of a hellish night of increasingly drunken raving was seen as the screen manifestation of Taylor and Burton’s actual relationship, famously stormy. But the film is more than just a peek behind the celebrity curtain. It’s a fantastic tour de force of acting, in which Taylor shows she was not just as good but even better than Burton – he always said she was and here’s the proof. Edward Albee’s original play had been hailed as one of the best of the last decade (by the New York Times, among others) and director Mike Nichols and screen adapter Ernest Lehman don’t bother opening it out too much. For the most part they let Albee’s words and the performances do the work, and Nichols often puts his camera right in the face of either Burton or Taylor in full flow, so we can almost feel the spittle. Burton, playing the professor with a cosy life and a well of self-reproach to draw on, is as good as we’ve come to expect (he’d been similarly self-loathing in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold the year before). It’s Taylor who is the revelation, a foul-mouthed spitfire whose husband has not kept her in the style which her upbringing had led her to expect. Her performance also can be traced back – to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when she was also an entitled dame with daddy issues. At the time it was the swearing that made the film so exciting, shocking, fun. Now it’s more the snap of the repartee (Martha: “You’re going bald.” George: “So are you.”) And the performances, so rapaciously ugly that they’re painful to watch even now. There’s a reason why this is so rarely shown on TV.



Why Watch?


  • All four actors were Oscar nominated for Best/Supporting gongs – a first
  • Haskell Wexler’s Oscar winning cinematography
  • The best of Burton and Taylor’s 11 films together
  • Director Mike Nichols’s debut


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Buy it/watch it at Amazon