If this is Charlie Wilson’s War, then we’re the ones losing it. That’s part of the message at the conclusion of Aaron Sorkin’s script for Charlie Wilson’s War, based on the book of the same name by George Crile. “The ball keeps on bouncing,” Charlie says to the government suits that deny him what he needs to properly put his crusade to rest, and he repeats himself purposefully — “the ball keeps on bouncing.” This line is at the heart of this particular act of War, and as with many of Sorkin’s works the seemingly-muddled message is really just an unusually demanding one, designed for interpretation by those on either side of a given political line.
The movie starts and ends with the same scene: Charlie, the Reagan-era Texan House Representative inhabited here by Tom Hanks, stands onstage waiting to be introduced. There’s a banner hanging across the back of the hall that’s somewhat difficult to read, but it clearly says CHARLIE in BIG LETTERS. The moderator says a few words about this man, this wonderful man, and Charlie approaches the rostrum to a standing ovation. His chest is slightly puffed out — just slightly — and Charlie smiles the Tom Hanks smile. The message in this scene is clear: he did it.
We’re not even sure what it is in the opening scene — I mean we are sure, of course, because this is a true story, but we might not know the how and why and the hoops he jumped through and so on, plus, besides, the movie’s just starting, so shut up, willya? — but regardless we know that Charlie has accomplished what he set out to accomplish. He did it.
And in that sense, as a character study, Charlie Wilson’s War is a success. Hanks is more perfect as Charlie than he’s been in a while, mostly because he conveys the personal arc that Charlie takes over the course of the entire film. Our real introduction to him is in a hot tub, surrounded by girls and drugs and liquor, talking about really important stuff like television soaps (“it’s like Dallas, only in D.C.”); we get the sense that this is the kind of guy who either needs to cool it with the partying or figure out how to charge for billable hours. A muted news program plays in the background, showing Dan Rather wearing a bulletproof vest…and once the news gets unmated, Charlie’s life does too.
“Crusade” really is the best word for what happens next. Charlie enlists everyone and their secretary to help figure out the Afghanistan problem. Whatever this campaign lacked in organization it made up for in pure energy, and Wilson’s primary confidantes — socialite Joanna Herring (Julia Roberts) and slothful spy Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) —learn to believe in him immediately after he learns to believe in himself (ugh, sorry). They succeed in assisting Afghan rebels in their war with Soviet oppressors, arming them with helicopter-damning missile launchers and the like. “Victory” ensues, and the whole full-circle thing is achieved when we get the opening scene as a bookend, Charlie standing onstage to roaring applause.
…but the ball keeps bouncing. Just prior to this congratulatory finale, there are two scenes that show how this “victory” may have been a successful battle, but the war (the proverbial war, at least) keeps raging. Charlie pushes for education and infrastructure to replace the war-torn Afghanistan, but American officials decide enough is enough. You’ve done good, they say to Charlie and good is all you get. “These things happened,” reads the epigraph (is it still an epigraph if it’s at the end? I’ll look that up later) from Charlie himself. “They were glorious and they changed the world…And then we fucked up the endgame.”
Watching that happy scene out of context, you might say what the? if that doomed and decisive statement popped up right afterward. Didn’t he win? Isn’t he happy? He looks happy — there, look, he’s even got the Tom Hanks smile! As Charlie Wilson’s War was released in 2007, it would have been an impossibility for American audiences to watch the film without thinking of the current Afghan crisis. Many critics blasted this ending, calling it a forced happy conclusion meant to satisfy as many people as possible. One reviewer even went so far as to say that Charlie Wilson’s War might very well have been the Dr. Strangelove of our generation, were it not for that ending.
Even if Sorkin’s script ended on a decidedly more aggressive note, the backlash to the film ending is unwarranted. That “happy” ending (it’s not that happy) is the public perception, and rightfully so stands as the public ending to Charlie Wilson’s big-screen story — people clap for Charlie, because Charlie done good. He has those two private endings, though, the first with Gust telling him that they have to keep fighting and the second with the American
assholes government men telling him that they can’t keep fighting. That’s a healthy dose of political drama for you, right there in two swift scenes after the brunt of the climax is done and dusted: you have to do something but you can’t. You’re stopped, stationary, but the ball keeps bouncing. In that sense the multi-tiered ending of Charlie Wilson’s War is quite perfect, because it tempts you to read the final scene as the comfortable conclusion but challenges you to realize that there’s still a line in the sand, an unwavering border with a lot of motivations on the other side. The message, regardless of where you find yourself in relation to that line, is a powerful one: if it is Charlie Wilson’s War, then we’re still losing it.