‘Charlie Wilson’s War’: History In the Making
Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks finally meet on screen, mixing covert sex and covert ops in this Mike Nichols film, the latest to take on global politics. Can these stars succeed where Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, and Reese Witherspoon failed?
By Benjamin Svetkey
As the door swings open to Julia Roberts’ suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, you half expect to find her in a bubble bath howling Prince tunes. Or at least splayed out on the carpet nibbling strawberries with champagne. This is, after all, the very spot where she charged Richard Gere $300 a night for the pleasure of her company in Pretty Woman, the movie that, 17 years ago, began her reign as the most sought-after starlet of the 1990s. But one look at the actress perched regally on the sofa with a fluffy scarf wrapped around her neck — ”I’ve got a cold,” she explains — and it’s clear she’ll be doing the junket scene from Notting Hill instead. ”I don’t know why they picked this hotel,” Roberts says with a shrug as a flock of publicists with clipboards and BlackBerries flutter out of the room. ”I’ve never done interviews here before. I never come here at all. I feel stupid. I can hear the Pretty Woman soundtrack in my head.”
The reason she’s here on this overcast November afternoon is to do publicity for Charlie Wilson’s War, the first film in which she shares screen time with that other matinee mainstay of the 1990s, Tom Hanks. But unlike the frothy love stories these two were whipping up a decade ago, nobody in this movie finds a soul mate at the Empire State Building or tries to wreck a best friend’s wedding — although at one point they do sort of ”meet cute” at a refugee camp in Pakistan. Based on the late 60 Minutes producer George Crile’s best-selling 2003 book, it’s the true tale of a real-life, little-known Texas congressman (Hanks) who joins forces with a stubborn, right-wing blue blood (Roberts) and a temperamental CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to set in motion the largest covert operation of the Cold War: aiding the mujahideen during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. ”I’d never heard of Charlie Wilson before I read it,” admits director Mike Nichols. ”But it’s a story about how one guy changed the world. And what better time to hear that message than when we’re all feeling totally passive and helpless?” Then again, the story can’t help but remind us of how those Afghan rebels whom Charlie Wilson was secretly helping would one day grow up to become al-Qaeda.
Yes, Charlie Wilson’s War is Hollywood’s latest attempt to get moviegoers interested in global politics. No matter how you spin it — Roberts, for one, likes to look at it as ”a three-part character piece” — it deals with American meddling in the Middle East and the blowback that inevitably follows. The body count for this particular genre has been high in the past few years: Syriana, Babel, A Mighty Heart, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs. Charlie Wilson’s War has some strategic advantages over the others: a snarky script by Aaron Sorkin that zips by with the snappy pacing of a West Wing episode and a hilarious, bellicose turn by Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, the surliest spy in the CIA. Still, given box office trends, it’s a brave band of moviemakers that marches into theaters with a picture about foreign policy these days.
”I haven’t seen a lot of those other movies — are they any good?” Roberts asks, flashing that famous blinding grin in her suite at the old Reg Bev Wilsh. ”I guess on some level ours would line up with the others in the Dewey decimal system of movies,” she acknowledges. ”But when I hear people call this a ‘war’ movie, I don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s really just a movie about three people. And the tone of it is so original. It goes from lofty to light to funny to interesting. It’s like watching Cirque du Soleil.”
‘Charlie walks in,” Hanks recalls, ”and he’s wearing cowboy boots, a brown pair of slacks, a purple shirt, and mismatching suspenders with little Spitfire airplanes on them that he’s run under the epaulets of his shirt. Half my work was done right there.”
Of course, the biggest guns in Charlie Wilson’s War are Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts themselves. If the combined force of these two cinematic howitzers can’t get the audience interested in current events, nobody can. That’s the tactic, anyway, that Universal will be betting on when it opens the film on Dec. 21. But as superpowers from Angelina Jolie to Reese Witherspoon have been learning lately, cinematic warfare is a lot less predictable today — and even more dangerous — than it was back in the ’90s.
There is, as it happens, a bubble bath scene in Charlie Wilson’s War. But it’s Hanks in the tub, not Roberts, and there is no singing of Prince songs. At the moment, Hanks is sitting at a desk at an editing suite in Santa Monica, tweaking a project he’s producing about another underappreciated politician: John Adams (Paul Giamatti will star as the second U.S. president in a cable miniseries beginning this March). Hanks’ affection for American history is well known to anyone with an HBO subscription — after John Adams, he’ll be launching The Pacific, a World War II miniseries that will bookend his 2001 epic, Band of Brothers. But except for a turn as astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, he’s never played a true-life historical figure. Luckily for him, Charlie Wilson made it easy.
”Charlie walks in,” Hanks recalls of his first meeting with the former lawmaker (now 74 and recuperating from a heart transplant operation), ”and he’s wearing cowboy boots, a brown pair of slacks, a purple shirt, and mismatching suspenders with little Spitfire airplanes on them that he’s run under the epaulets of his shirt. Half my work was done right there.”
The other half turned out to be trickier. Hanks had purchased the screen rights to Crile’s book about Wilson shortly after its publication, in 2003, but it took a while for him to figure out how to adapt the story of this wildly unlikely hero. Here was a womanizing, boozing schmoozer who seemed to spend more time flirting with Playmates than crafting legislation as a member of the Congressional Appropriations Committee — where, it turns out, he was quietly procuring billions for the clandestine CIA operations that would ultimately oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Part of the problem, according to Hanks, was that Wilson’s tale is almost too outrageous for the screen, bustling with believe-it-or-not characters like Joanne Herring, the big-haired Southern socialite who helps Wilson cook up his covert plan while he’s soaking in her tub and she’s combing mascara from her eyelashes with a safety pin (Roberts, incidentally, steals the scene with that harrowing-looking maneuver). ” When I read the book, I was like, ‘Wait a minute,”’ Hanks says. ”’This is too farcical! It’s too much! You can’t put all that in a movie.”’
”Honestly, I promise this movie is not a schlep,” says Aaron Sorkin. ”It doesn’t make anybody eat their vegetables or try to persuade you to a certain political point of view. ”
Eventually, Sorkin packed most of it into what Hanks calls a ”rock-’em, sock-’em” script, which the star then dangled under the nose of Mike Nichols. (”Mike was always interested,” Hanks says. ”We’d be fools not to give it to him.”) ”I read it,” remembers the Oscar-winning director of The Graduate, Silkwood, and Working Girl. ”And I thought, ‘S—. I’m stuck.”’ Nichols rang up Roberts, his favorite actress since the two worked together on 2004’s Closer, and Hoffman, whom he’d directed on stage in Chekhov’s The Seagull. Next thing you know, the bunch of them were stuck on a mountaintop in Morocco making a movie in the middle of a monsoon. ”We ended up having to reshoot a lot of that [Pakistan refugee camp] scene in Los Angeles,” Nichols says of a location sequence that got scuttled by floods last winter. ”I’m thinking of offering a cash prize on the DVD to anyone who can spot which part was shot in Morocco and which in Mystery Mesa.” The weather issues added to the film’s total budget — about $75 million — but nobody at Universal complained too much. ”With the pedigree of the people involved — Mike Nichols, Julia, Phil, me… This wasn’t a brave movie for the studio to make,” Hanks notes slyly.
At least it wasn’t at the time. Today, though, after watching so many others go down in flames, opening a political-themed movie, even an upbeat one with Tom and Julia, must make Universal execs feel like they’re about to live through the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. The odds seem to be against them. ”I know, I know, it’s got the word war in the title, and it takes you to foreign countries where there’s lots of rubble and people wear turbans and have beards,” groans Sorkin. ”But, honestly, I promise this movie is not a schlepp. It doesn’t make anybody eat their vegetables or try to persuade you to a certain political point of view. I mean, it opens in a hotel suite in Las Vegas.”
Sorkin’s script, in fact, does not include a single reference to al-Qaeda, suicide bombers, or even the Taliban — although in one early draft he did end the film with a portentous allusion to the Twin Towers. Instead, the point that some of the rockets the CIA slipped into Afghanistan in the 1980s wound up in the hands of people like Osama bin Laden is made more subtly. Toward the close of the film, a poignant Zen parable pops up in Hoffman’s dialogue about the uncertain, unknowable future, and a quote by Charlie Wilson about how America ”f—ed up the endgame” in Afghanistan appears on screen at the end (for the more politically attuned, there are also shout-outs in the script to John Murtha and Rudy Giuliani). ”We didn’t want to hit anyone over the head with it,” Sorkin explains. ”We assumed the people watching wouldn’t be any dumber than the people who made the movie. That they would get it.”
”Our movie isn’t about 9/11 or the war in Iraq,” says director Mike Nichols. ”Those things are beneath the surface. They’re unstated. Unspoken. But everybody knows they’re there.”
The fact that the film takes place 20 years ago should make it go down a bit smoother with today’s war-weary audience. ”I think these sorts of things need distance,” Roberts says. ”You can’t really make a movie about what’s going on right now. You can’t watch the war on the news at 6 p.m. and then go out and see a controlled version of that same war at a 7:20 show. It’s confusing and disrespectful.” Nichols puts it slightly differently. ”Our movie isn’t about 9/11 or the war in Iraq,” he says. ”Those things are beneath the surface. They’re unstated. Unspoken. But everybody knows they’re there.”
Something else is unstated and unspoken beneath the surface of Charlie Wilson’s War — the place Hanks and Roberts occupy in the new anarchy of Hollywood.
Perhaps more than any other actors who rose up in the 1990s, these two defined what it meant to be on top during that decade. They both broke through around the same time and ascended on separate but parallel trajectories to levels of success undreamt of even in Beverly Hills. In addition to receiving multiple Oscar nominations — and three wins — during that period, Hanks started commanding $20 million a picture (reportedly earning tens of millions more in profit point deals on films like Forrest Gump), while Roberts finished the ’90s as the first female to crash the $20 million barrier (for Erin Brockovich, for which she also earned her Oscar). For a time, their names above a title were believed to all but guarantee a hit — and, for a time, they sort of did. Add them together and Hanks’ and Roberts’ grosses in the U.S. alone total $5.5 billion, roughly the amount Charlie Wilson spent kicking the Russians out of Afghanistan.
”I am no guarantee that a movie is going to be a success,” Hanks states flatly. ”I am no guarantee that a movie is going to touch the national zeitgeist.”
But, of course, star power isn’t what it used to be — not when Tom Cruise can’t help his last movie, Lions for Lambs, earn more than a measly $15 million. Except for franchises (the Ocean’s sequels and the Dan Brown adaptations), neither Roberts nor Hanks has had a megahit since the turn of the century. Granted, Roberts has been in semiretirement since getting married and having kids, acting mostly in animated films when she’s acting at all. And Hanks hasn’t exactly been idle: In addition to his HBO projects, he’ll costar with his son Colin in The Great Buck Howard, which will debut at Sundance this January, before moving on to higher-profile projects like Ron Howard’s Da Vinci follow-up, Angels & Demons. But Charlie Wilson’s War is precisely the sort of tricky picture that could use a sprinkling of their old ’90s-style magic.
”I am no guarantee that a movie is going to be a success,” Hanks states flatly. ”I am no guarantee that a movie is going to touch the national zeitgeist. The only thing I can guarantee is that it will be news if it does and it will be news if it doesn’t.” What’s changed in the entertainment universe, Hanks thinks, is that ”the audience has figured out there is no connection from one of my movies to the next. The audience has become smart about stars. So it’s chaos out there now. Nobody has any idea why people are going to see a movie. Nobody knows what’s going to be a hit or what’s going to be irrelevant. There are no new models. The new paradigm in Hollywood is that there is no new paradigm.”
Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like the old paradigm — ”Nobody knows anything,” as William Goldman famously nailed it in 1983 — but then Hollywood has always been an uncertain place. In any case, Roberts has been forced to adjust to the new realities of the movie star business too. ”I’ve actually gone on a pop culture fast,” she says. ”The TV shows and gossip magazines — it seems so polluting and toxic now. It’s exhausting just looking at a newsstand these days. Your eyes cross. You can’t even focus. People aren’t as interested in making a cool movie or constructing interesting characters. Now it’s just about being big and shiny and fabulous.”
Charlie Wilson’s War is as cool a movie as any Roberts or Hanks has made these past couple of years. It’s certainly chock-full of interesting characters. And even in this uncertain decade, they ‘re still pretty big and shiny and fabulous. Who knows, maybe that’s enough to get the world interested in…the world.