Charlie Wilson's War tells the true story of how America secretly channelled arms to Afghanistan in the early 1980s, thus enabling the Mujahideen to repel the Soviet invaders. Based on George Crile's non-fiction book, it sounds as if it should be a knotty espionage thriller, but Mike Nichols stages it as a flippant farce, a decision that's understandable when you meet the three major players.
"Good Time" Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a hard-drinking, hedonistic congressman who staffs his office with busty models nicknamed "Charlie's Angels". He's converted to the Afghan cause by Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a super-rich Texan socialite who also happens to be an ambassador to Pakistan. And his link to the secret services is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a tubby, pompadoured CIA loose cannon who's almost as partial to booze and bad behaviour as Charlie is. But while its protagonists are larger than life, the action is disappointingly small scale. According to Charlie Wilson's War, setting up a billion-dollar international covert operation is easier than getting a local council to move a zebra crossing. All it takes is a few conversations – and Wilson's reprobate ways barely come into it.
The film is written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, which might explain why it seems more like a TV pilot than a superstar-studded blockbuster. Sorkin keeps using his trademark scenes of men striding down corridors firing statistics at each other, and the script glimmers with sparky dialogue, but it's neither rollicking enough to be a romp, nor serious enough to be a political docudrama. Maybe the men just aren't walking down those corridors fast enough. Or maybe the director, now 76, is getting too old to keep up the pace.
But he's a spring chicken compared to Sidney Lumet, whose latest film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, isn't what you might expect from an 83-year-old. A heist-gone-wrong thriller which relies on low-budget seediness, gutsy acting and Reservoir Dogs' time-shuffling, you'd assume it was the calling card of a young novice. Philip Seymour Hoffman co-stars again, this time as an accountant who talks his brother, Ethan Hawke, into robbing a suburban jeweller's shop – owned by their parents. But the brothers know it's insured, and security is lax, so what could go wrong? Everything, of course – whereupon, the story hops back and forth to the days just before and just after the robbery, sometimes showing events from Hoffman's point of view, sometimes from Hawke's, sometimes from the perspective of their father, Albert Finney.
It's intriguing to see the desperate brothers dig themselves into an ever deeper hole, but soon the narrative see-sawing does nothing but stall the momentum. Eventually it becomes apparent that the chronological gimmickry is there to add contours to a bleak plot that otherwise follows a direct route from bad to worse.