Thursday, 17 November 2011

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is little known member of Congress who uses his relative obscurity to enjoy a playboy lifestyle of women, alcohol but definitely no drugs. However, in reality as a member of the committee overseeing covert operations for the CIA he wields great influence in foreign affairs.

Believing Afghanistan to be the key battle ground in the Cold War, he creates an unlikely coalition of bedfellows to fund and supply more sophisticated weaponry to the outgunned Mujahideen.

In a zippy montage the newly equipped Afghanis kick Commie butt out of the country. The demoralised Soviet Union fails to recover from this dent to national prestige. Within a few short years Communism collapses and the Cold War is won.

That may sound like a trite summary. But any liberties taken with the plot or history have been made by the film makers and not me, because this is a very peculiar film.

On the one hand it is a political tale about recent events in our history which have shaped the world we live in today. Essentially how the Cold War became the War on Terror.

On the other, it’s a glossy comedy where those self same events are told as if they’re simply a rattling good yarn about some long forgotten diplomatic incident of minor importance.

These contradictory elements are thrown into acute focus when the film attempts to explain Wilson’s motivations. Wilson is converted to the Afghani cause by the tales of horror he hears in a refugee camp.

Given his role overseeing CIA covert operations would he really be so moved by the humanitarian plight in front of him? It’s not like the CIA weren’t adverse to propping up the odd murderous dictator if it was politically expedient.

Unfortunately such simplicity runs throughout the film. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch 22, The Birdcage) and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) attempt to acknowledge the context and consequences of the events their showing in a few cursory scenes tacked on the end. It’s a case of too little, too late.

In an early scene in the film a character talks to Wilson about a TV programme he’s trying to pitch as “like Dallas but in Washington DC“. It’s almost a coda for the film. Charlie Wilson’s War is like Cold War shot as Dallas.

But hey, for all this the film revolves around arming the Mujahideen so they can shoot down Soviet helicopters so it can‘t be all bad.

The culmination of Wilson’s efforts to support the Mujahideen is the scene where a group of Afghani’s bring down three Hind helicopters with rocket launchers.

The Hind’s are busy shooting up civilians and chatting over the radio about dating. The Afghani’s fire off their newly acquired stinger missiles on a nearby hill top and destroy the choppers.

We then see a further three helicopters destroyed. Two certainly look like archival footage which is incorporated into the film throughout. Whilst a third looks a combination of old news reel plus a contemporaneous footage.

Artistic merit

Director Nichols is most at home in the field of dramatic comedy and seems at a loss with how to shoot action sequences. The scene where the trio of helicopters are shoot down are cut and shot in the kind of way you’d see the scenes done in the mid 80s.

You have to wonder how comfortable Nichols - he was 76 when he made this - was with modern special effects. Especially when long shots and extreme close ups serve to obscure rather than illuminate what’s happened. It sounds impossible, but Nichols has somehow made a scene with three helicopters blowing up a disappointment.

The other three helicopters explosions are archival footage. As we are in all likelihood watching real people die it is not becoming of a blog, even Exploding Helicopter, to provide an artistic critique.

Let’s just end by saying that with six Charlie Wilson’s War is contains the most exploding helicopters of any film to date.

Number of exploding helicopters



Philip Seymour Hoffman is predictably excellent in his supporting role. His introductory scene makes it seems like it’s going to be a histrionic performance, but it soon settles down into a low key acerbic portrayal of his character.


Julia Roberts plays a wealthy Texan neo-con who wants American to intercede on the side of the Afghanis. Her performance descends into grotesque caricature and is not aided by a face nearly which appears paralysed by botox injections.

Favourite quote

“I told you all we had to do was shoot down the helicopters.”

Interesting fact

Director Mike Nichols was at one time interested in making Rambo’s First Blood but with Dustin Hoffman in the lead. Sadly it's not documented if Nichols ever considered doing The Graduate with Sylvester Stallone.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast on Charlie Wilson's War. Listen on iTunes, Podomatic, Stitcher, YourListen, Acast or right here. 


  1. Can you believe I watched this at the cinema a few years ago and didnt register the fact that it had 6 exploding helicopters in it?

    I think I'd fallen asleep after half an hour.

  2. Just shows that it always pays to stay awake during a film.

  3. 6!? wow. i never would have thought. that's more than most action movies.

  4. I was surprised as well. At one stage I thought I was going to lose count!