3 Things That Charlie Wilson’s War Did Right

3 Things That Charlie Wilson’s War Did Right

Charlie Wilson’s War is a 2007 film that tells the true-life story of the CIA’s influence in Afghanistan during the Cold War. Directed by Mike Nichols, written by Aaron Sorkin, and featuring an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, this Relativity Media film is proof that political drama can be genuinely entertaining when the producers behind the project make smart choices.

A decade after its release, the movie still feels fresh. These are some of the key reasons why:


  1. The Filmmakers Kept the Story Entertaining.

Charlie Wilson's War
Image by K嘛 | Flickr

Making a political drama is always risky in Hollywood. Stories like this aren’t as obviously entertaining as, for instance, a superhero picture. The filmmakers must make sure they’ve turned the sober and often complex facts of real-life events into something that audiences will genuinely enjoy watching.

Charlie Wilson’s War succeeds because the producers understood this challenge. It’s one of the reasons they hired Aaron Sorkin, who already proved he could tell these kinds of stories with wit and energy as head writer on The West Wing. Earlier projects, like The American President and A Few Good Men, also display his ability to distill seemingly “boring” topics into energetic and entertaining scripts.

Choosing Mike Nichols to direct was another intelligent move. Nichols, famous for movies like The Graduate and The Birdcage, has earned a reputation for making character the focus of his pictures, grounding any story in true human emotions and experiences. It is especially important for a movie like Charlie Wilson’s War to do this because films that deal with serious geopolitical issues can feel too cold and distant, thus leaving audiences unengaged. While viewers might learn interesting facts about the subject of a film, they aren’t witnessing true human drama. This robs the story of the majority of its entertainment value.


  1. The Cast Hit All the Right Notes.

When a film has multiple key roles, it’s often necessary to cast actors who do a great job playing off each other, adjusting their energy level in each scene to counterbalance that projected by their fellow cast mates. If every performer brings the same level of energy to his or her role, then the movie will feel dramatically flat.

The cast of Charlie Wilson’s War is pitch-perfect. For the title character, the filmmakers needed an actor who could maintain a mildly comedic energy throughout the film, without coming off as a buffoon; after all, audiences needed to accept that this offbeat, over-the-top character could still be a successful politician. Tom Hanks was ideal for the part.

That meant that actors who shared screen time with Hanks needed to moderate his energy in some way. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cynical, sardonic performance balances out Hanks’ unstoppable enthusiasm. Julia Roberts also shines in her role as the one character in the film confident enough to put Hanks in his place when necessary. She’s the only person he isn’t always comfortable around, because she conveys her own sense of self-assuredness. Having established herself years ago as one of Hollywood’s top performers, Julia Roberts was perfect for the part.

Charlie Wilson's War
Image by Tom Francis | Flickr


  1. The Story Was Relevant.

Many of the most effective political films don’t simply dramatize past events; they depict past events that are directly relevant to the time when they’re released.

Technically, Charlie Wilson’s War takes place decades ago. However, the global consequences of what occur in the film still affect us today. The movie doesn’t shy away from this, either. On the contrary, after celebrating what appears to be a major victory, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character reminds Tom Hanks that what they did together in Afghanistan could lead to trouble down the road if they’re not able to continue supporting the people in the region. While the film never explicitly links itself with the War on Terror and other major topics dominating headlines at the time of its release, it does let the viewer know that what’s happening on screen still has an impact on their own lives.

This personal relevance is very important for political dramas. Viewers want to know why they should care about an obscure story from history. By showing how historical events set in motion a chain reaction that continues to affect people in the present day, films like Charlie Wilson’s War make the events they’re depicting feel more meaningful for an audience.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to make a successful movie like this if movie executives didn’t make smart decisions during the pre-production phase. Producers must choose the best writer, director, and actors for the job. Charlie Wilson’s War was by no mean destined to be as successful as it was. However, by making careful choices every step of the way, the team behind the film crafted a political drama that remains resonant 10 years after its release.

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