Hollywood stars are a mixed blessing. When Tom Hanks plays a part, you’re assured of getting an engaging, professional job. And when Philip Seymour Hoffman tackles another seedy role, you can expect edgy, in-your-face intensity. But when you compare mere actors to the real people they play, you often lose me. Hanks, after all, was just an actor pretending to be a courageous astronaut in Apollo 13, while James Lovell — a man I’ve had the honor to meet — was the real deal. So as good as Apollo 13 was, I appreciated Lovell’s book, Lost Moon, and documentaries on his ill-fated mission far more. The real thing, for me, is often immensely more fascinating than a make-believe Hollywood translation.
The same goes for Charlie Wilson’s War, new on DVD Tuesday from Universal. Make no mistake: the film entertains. Hanks is grandly garrulous and earthy yet deceptively slick as a larger-than-life East Texas congressman who manages to set up beleaguered Afghans with anti-tank and anti-chopper weaponry to bring down their Soviet oppressors (though Hanks is a bit too dapper and stylish for the role’s own good). And Hoffman is his usual charmingly acerbic self as a CIA operative in on the deal.
Then enter Julia Roberts as Houston socialite Joanne Herring, who initiates the intervention, and the casting machine takes a wrench. She looks the part, all right, but plays it with a peculiar accent, as non-Texans so often do when they tackle Texas roles. All those Southern sounds from Georgia or ‘Bama don’t really work. And besides, Houston socialites don’t necessary have strong accents, Texan or otherwise (and I can say this as a Houstonian who’s met quite a few). But Roberts is rarely in the picture, so her impact is muted, anyway. (And by the way, this is the second Houstonian she’s played, following the fashion writer she portrayed in Pret-a-Porter, aka Ready to Wear.)
While Charlie Wilson’s War works as a dark comedy about opportunists taking it upon themselves to step in where witless U.S. foreign-policy strategists will not, the true story, as drawn from the late George Crile’s book of the same name, is clearly much more compelling. You even can see from a brief DVD featurette that the real Charlie Wilson and company would have made for a terrific documentary on their own. (By contrast, a making-the-movie featurette is the same old suck-up fest of which countless DVDs are guilty, when highly paid actors and filmmakers all sing each other’s praises as if there is no higher calling in the universe beyond making product for the megaplex. And everyone — everyone — on the shoot is a genius.)
Even so, by all means check out Charlie Wilson’s War. Besides being entertained, you’ll see where the U.S. might have avoided 9/11 if we’d only followed through in Afghanistan in the ’80s. But the real story, not the make-believe put-on by actors feigning accents, is the real deal and is worth a closer look in itself. Stories this incredible don’t need embellishment or star power. They just need to be told.