Charlie Wilson’s War

The nominations:

  • Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Black-and-White:

This is a movie that about covert war that trots out the big guns — Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols, two-time Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, Oscar winners Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Oscar nominee Amy Adams, not to mention multiple-Emmy winning writer Aaron Sorkin. Nevertheless, it never rises above being merely entertaining (although that is still saying a lot, in this Oscar season), which is probably why it still hasn’t even made enough at the box office to cover the estimated budget of the movie itself.

Here is the plot synopsis from

Although his career is under threat from an investigation into his possible drug use, Representative Charlie Wilson manages to use his influence to gain congressional funding for the Mujahideen rebel forces during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Working with CIA agent Gust Avrakotos and Texas socialite Joanne Herring, Wilson dramatically increases U.S. covert support for the rebels and changes the outcome of the war.

It’s the early 1980s and Charlie Wilson’s just a guy who cain’t say no, cain’t seem to say it at all. As a result, he has amassed a lot of women, and lot of chits with fellow Congressmembers who’ve received his support over the years. When one of his women, Houston socialite Joanne Herring, opens his eyes to the plight of the people of Afghanistan under Soviet occupation, he begins a campaign to call in some of those chits and quietly increase the CIA budget to support the rebel forces.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gust Avrakotos, a Greek-American CIA division chief heading up the Afghanistan operation who seizes the opportunity to work with Wilson. Avrakotos sees his three-man operation blossom under the patronage of Wilson, and together they arm the Mooj with the very weapons that end up being used against American troops twenty years later.

This is a role quite different from the WASPish characters Hoffman usually plays, and will hopefully open up a new range of possibilities for the future. Unlike Hanks and Roberts whose accents were forced and uneven (as was Roberts’s performance throughout) and who never stopped giving the impression of “acting” every minute on the screen, Hoffman was thoroughly immersed in his character, and was engaging and interesting. Although I’ve not seen the performances of category-favorite Javier Bardem or sentimental-favorite Hal Holbrook, and although I would rate Tom Wilkinson’s performance in Michael Clayton higher (if only because it was the only interesting part of that film), I would not be disappointed at all if Hoffman were to win this category.

It’s hard to say why this movie didn’t really catch on with audiences or the Oscar powers-that-be. It had a lot to recommend it — great cast, timely subject matter, snappy dialogue, and the irony of hindsight — and yet no one seemed to take it seriously. Which is strange, considering that three of the nominated documentaries are about the war in the Middle East, and one of the nominated films is about Afghanistan during the very period of Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakotos’s involvement.

Perhaps people just didn’t get it. After all, one of the largest failings, in a movie whose subject and timing could hardly be the model of subtlety, is the complete failure to close the loop between what Wilson, Avrakotos, and Herring made happen in the movie and what is going on in Afghanistan today.

Or perhaps, in the words of another Aaron Sorkin movie, people just can’t handle the truth.

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