Playwright, screenwriter and TV writer Aaron Sorkin has always made national politics and office politics look sexy. With him, we can dream that we have men and women of great stature in Washington, D.C. who are looking to do good not because of personal gain, but because of their belief that the country could benefit. That’s part of what kept me occupied Wednesday nights at 9, years ago, when “The West Wing” was on. His “Sports Night” had the same pleasures, though examining a kind of media that is purely passionate about sports. They love the games, love the action, love the news that comes out of it, even when it gets difficult for them, continually being the third-rated sports news show and the corporation they work under that would like to see bigger ratings. To them, it’s the story that should come first.
Through these, and his screenplays for “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” and his recent failure with “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (an astoundingly strong pilot episode which devolved into a series too preachy, that looked down upon its viewers as if they needed to learn what Sorkin knew and had to say, lest they miss out on all the apparent entertainment happening on their TV screens), Sorkin has a gift for dialogue that doesn’t just come from the words he writes. He’s always employed actors that benefit from what he puts forth for their characters, and they in turn make the words stronger. One of the interesting things about Sorkin’s career is that when he’s at the helm of his own TV shows, when he can write the scripts one after another, he gets into habits that at times can become annoying. There were many scenes on “The West Wing” where a story told by one of the White House staff didn’t seem to relate to anything else. Sorkin evidently wanted it to be seen as a character moment, how an aside shows the type of person that character is by what they talk about. But it always stuck out as a “character moment.” It was never germane to what was going on. That happens in “Charlie Wilson’s War” in a scene on a plane back from Afghanistan.
I’ve never completely held that against him. Every writer whose work I love has their quirks, some which are necessary to the work they present, and some like Sorkin’s which only exist to show the writer at work from behind. “Studio 60” was all about this, even though it took place behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-type sketch show where you’d think the main concern would be making sure that people watched the show and laughed every Friday night that it was broadcast.
“Charlie Wilson’s War” is a great success from Sorkinland, namely because of the efforts of esteemed director Mike Nichols and stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. For one, because Sorkin isn’t the one entirely running the show here, his script blends smoothly into what’s happening, that of Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) of the Texas Second Congressional District, and his fight against the Soviets, who have barged into Afghanistan and taken lots of lives, causing the living citizens to cower. What can they do when they don’t have the will or the firepower to combat the mighty Soviet Union?
Charlie is not your typical Congressman though, and it’s no wonder that Sorkin, among a set of interviews on the DVD, talks about this being the only job he actually lobbied for. President Bartlet and his staff on “The West Wing” and the “Sports Night” staff were also that atypical. Charlie fits right into Sorkin’s collection of characters. His place of relaxation is in a hot tub with strippers in a suite at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He drinks as well, with pleasure, and why not? His district doesn’t require a lot of attention, and the worst of the problems is a Nativity scene towards Christmas time not allowed to be placed in a public area outside of a church in Nacogdoches, Texas.
In that suite at Caesar’s Palace, he sees Dan Rather in a turban in Afghanistan and wonders what he’s doing there. Then a call comes from Joanne Herring (Roberts), the “sixth-wealthiest woman in Texas,” who has been passionate about the cause of the Afghanis to fight against the onslaught of the Soviets, and implores Charlie to get more involved beyond the five million dollars for CIA covert operations that he pitifully ordered doubled to ten million in his Defense Subcommittee, which boasts an unlimited budget when it comes to keeping watch on international actions.
Hanks clearly enjoys his role, with cowboy boots and a dedicated female staff that’s credited as ‘Charlie’s Angels’ in the end credits. His press secretary, played by Shiri Appleby (remember “Roswell”?), is called Jailbait. No wonder he also produced this movie. There’s a scene with his women that Sorkin obviously could not resist, when they’re poring over a statement to be sent out to the press when Charlie is apparently snared by a Justice Department investigation involving drugs. Jailbait reads part of the statement, speaking the words “task force,” and the forever-beautiful Amy Adams as Charlie’s devoted administrative assistant Bonnie Bach, tells her, “Don’t say ‘task force.’ It makes it sound like Elliot Ness is running the thing.” That’s exactly what’s found among Bartlet’s speechwriters on “The West Wing.” You listen to enough of Sorkin’s efforts and you can easily find the repeat habits.
There are many delightful surprises in this film, besides Sorkin’s ever-reliable sparkling dialogue. As Herring, Julia Roberts looks like a different Julia Roberts, especially while she curls her eyelashes in a mirror in her bathroom, and it’s a credit to Roberts to look this different and not tap into what made her Julia Roberts in the 1990s. As she has some fun in her performance, she’s also looking more and more dignified, and that makes her a more engaging actress today.
The big victory for Nichols and Sorkin is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, a frustrated and heavy-drinking division chief in the CIA, whose first scene is one of the strongest in the entire film. He demands to know of his new boss why he’s not been made the station chief in Helsinki and in his barely-controlled anger, he shatters an office window that the guy just had replaced. This is the moment that shows this isn’t just Sorkin here. This is him among a high-end group of minds, making a previously-unknown piece of our history clearly known. Sure Hoffman speaks Sorkin’s words, but it’s the darkened glasses and his thick mustache and his demeanor that seizes our attention without question. Sorkin’s love for obscure poems and facts also pipes up when Gust is in Charlie’s office and he hands him a bottle of whiskey, mentioning that the name of it comes from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and then recites the poem. Because of Hoffman’s performance, it’s not irksome that time, especially with what follows involving that bottle.
Because of everything contained here, I think I can half-forgive Sorkin for the disappointing “Studio 60,” which was something to be excited about after he left “The West Wing,” which derailed for about two seasons after that. “Charlie Wilson’s War” is intelligence to be savored appreciatively. Not only do these actors score, along with a diverse supporting cast representing Pakistan and Israel and Afghanistan, but curiosity grows and so does the desire to know more about what Charlie Wilson did. I’m sure this will cause more to read the late George Crile’s book about Charlie and his war, myself included. Therefore, “Charlie Wilson’s War” succeeds spectacularly.