After the litany of awkward antiwar polemics foisted on filmgoers in the fall (In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Redacted), it seemed fair to ask what it would take for Hollywood to make a good movie about war and politics. The answer provided by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols is simplicity itself: Leave out most of the war and all the politics.
Charlie Wilson's War won't have any effect on the course of world affairs--and it's sensible enough to recognize this. The backdrop of the movie may be the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of fanatical Islam, but the foreground is filled with attractive stars trading sharp, Sorkinized dialogue. "Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?" a character asks Texas Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) in the early going. "Well," he begins, before pausing thoughtfully, "tradition, mostly."
Based on George Crile's stranger-than-fiction account of the CIA's largest-ever covert operation, the film follows the 1980s evolution of Wilson from amiable, boozy philanderer to amiable, boozy philanderer with a purpose--specifically, providing support to the Afghan mujahideen trying to expel the Soviet invasion. He was inspired in this cause in part by Houston socialite-cum-freedom-fighter Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and aided by CIA case officer Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Pre-Wilson, the annual covert ops budget for Afghanistan was $5 million; by the time he was done, it was $1 billion.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Soviet Union was expelled and suffered a blow from which it never really recovered. But, when America went back to ignoring Afghanistan, our erstwhile rebel allies underwent the small but crucial etymological shift from mujahideen to jihadi. As the (real) Wilson summarizes in an onscreen quote at the conclusion of the film: "Those things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame."
It's a moral that cuts neatly across partisan lines--half-hawkish, half-dovish, and uncontroversial enough that Nichols and Sorkin don't have to waste time scoring political points. The script is sprinkled with enough contemporaneous references (to Tip O'Neill, Boris Spassky, Rudy Giuliani, etc.) to feel smart, but never so many that it looks like it's trying to be Serious. And it crams quite a bit into its slim, 97-minute running time, chronicling not merely Wilson's geopolitical crusade, but also his personal mission to dally with a Clintonesque tally of young beauties. (The film rather overdoes it on this score.)
Hanks is an odd choice to play "Good Time Charlie," the bluff, womanizing Texan (someone like Thomas Hayden Church seems a closer fit), but he gives the role a likable spin nonetheless, conjuring a congressman a bit more languid and ironic than one imagines the original to have been. Julia Roberts is a considerably greater stretch as the fiftysomething man-eater Herring, her platinum helmet of hair appearing borrowed from someone else or perhaps even spliced in from another movie. It's also interesting to note that even as Roberts is clearly (and shrewdly) starting to look for ways to transition into older roles, she's not yet ready to put all her eggs in that basket: One scene in the movie has her answering the telephone while stepping, bikini-clad, from the pool, revealing a bod that is fifty going on twenty-two. But despite the dissonance, Roberts turns in an adequate performance, rescuing an act of miscasting that could easily have proven disastrous.
From the moment he appears onscreen, however, this is Philip Seymour Hoffman's movie. His rumpled, cranky spy is hilarious--George Smiley by way of Jack Black--but with an edge of quiet ferocity that makes every scene he's in play a little sharper. He's the funniest character in the film, but also seems the most real, a man whose terse wit and don't-give-a-shit demeanor might easily have been forged by a career of unseemly, spookish deeds. There are times when even his costars seem a touch afraid of him, as if he's brought an unanticipated, potentially dangerous element into the otherwise breezy proceedings.
A touch more breeze might have benefited Hoffman's other end-of-the-year opening, the smart but somewhat claustrophobic The Savages, in which he is paired with Laura Linney. If Hoffman's performances frequently contain an undercurrent of fury, Linney's are rarely more than a few steps removed from panic, and these tendencies interact with contrapuntal precision in Tamara Jenkins's dark comedy about two siblings forced to care for their estranged father (Philip Bosco) as he slips into senile dementia.
Wendy Savage (Linney) is a would-be playwright who temps to pay the bills and sleeps with a married neighbor while he's supposedly out walking the labrador. (The most memorable shot in the film is of her reaching out to touch the dog's paw in the midst of one such coital encounter, a pitiable grasp at the connection sex isn't providing.) Her brother, Jon (Hoffman), teaches university classes in "the theatre of social unrest" while struggling to complete his book on Brecht and pining for an ex-girlfriend who has flown back to Poland. The operative word for both siblings, in other words, is "drama."
And this is before they get the call from a retirement community in Sun City, Arizona, telling them that their father, whom neither has spoken to in years, has taken to writing obscenities on the bathroom wall in his own shit. They fly out together to retrieve him and set him up in a rest home near Jon's house in Buffalo. (Because who wouldn't want to spend his dying winters in Buffalo?) There, the siblings begin grinding their insecurities against one another--his, passive-aggressive; hers, manic-defensive--to alternating comic and tragic effect.
It's a dynamic that persists, with somewhat diminishing returns, for most of the film. Linney and Hoffman are both terrific, and Jenkins's script is pointed and perceptive, but the film's arc is a little flat. Jenkins should be congratulated for not indulging in glib uplift, but she seems, for a while at least, uncertain of what to offer in its place. (It perhaps doesn't help that this closed family dramedy stretches to a shade under two hours.) The Savages offers a great opportunity to watch two gifted performers mine the rough terrain between humor and despair. But if you're like me, by the end you may feel ready for a movie that can't even get itself too worked up about the collapse of communism and birth of global jihad.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.