Charlie Wilson's War (15)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (15)

Spy story? Nope, more Afghan farce

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.

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'