“Charlie Wilson’s War” is about a liberal congressman who fervently believed America should get involved in a foreign war, and how that decision proved to be the right one. It was written by Hollywood liberal Aaron Sorkin and directed by Hollywood liberal Mike Nichols. WHAT IS THIS, BIZARRO WORLD?!
Now, before I get too far I should mention the sobering (i.e., buzz-killing) finale, where America botches the aftermath and possibly makes things worse. But the point is, the initial involvement was morally and politically appropriate, and 80 percent of “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a dizzyingly satiric and outrageous — and true — story.
Charlie Wilson was a good ol’ boy, a representative of Texas’ 2nd congressional district who loved his whiskey, his women, and numerous other vices. When a stripper he’s just met says she loves him, he replies, “It helps not to know me.” He is played here by Tom Hanks — a smart move, given that Charlie might otherwise come off as too flawed to be likable, and everyone knows it’s impossible not to like Tom Hanks. (Go ahead and try! You won’t get far!)
The film begins in 1980, just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a poor nation that is woefully unequipped to fight back. Charlie, on the congressional committee that oversees secret CIA funding, increases the budget so the U.S. can help the Afghans fight their war. He’s doing it for bleeding-heart reasons: He and his assistant, Bonnie (Amy Adams), have traveled to an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and seen firsthand the devastation the Soviets have caused.
Back in Texas, Charlie has a friend in Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a conservative born-again Christian millionaire who also wants the U.S. to help the Afghans, but for entirely different reasons. She sees it as a matter of national security. If the Soviets take over Afghanistan and gain a stronghold in the Middle East, then next thing you know the Commies will be invading the United States. An Afghan victory over the Soviets is good for America.
Between the two of them — Charlie calling in political favors, Joanne cozying up to her fellow Christian millionaires who have political clout — they succeed in getting the budget needed to get weapons to Afghanistan. The problem is that it cannot be done overtly. If the U.S. openly aids the Afghans in a war against Russia, it’ll turn the Cold War into a regular war. Any U.S. aid must be on the down low.
Their CIA contact is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a boozy, embittered agent whose temper has put him in the doghouse but whose skills at covert operations are unparalleled. Charlie and Gust somehow get cooperation from Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt to divert some captured Russian weapons into Afghan hands — Russian so that the Afghans could plausibly have captured them from their enemies rather than gotten them gift-wrapped from Uncle Sam. And if you’re marveling wide-eyed at Charlie’s ability to get Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt to work together on something, then you’re starting to see how unlikely a figure Charlie Wilson is, and how entertaining a film about his adventures can be.
Mike Nichols is no stranger to larger-than-life political stories (“Primary Colors”), and certainly Aaron Sorkin (TV’s “West Wing” and “Studio 60”) knows his way around smart dialogue, rapid-fire delivery, and heart-on-your-sleeve political sentiment. (Charlie’s liberal bona fides are established in a scene where he urges a constituent to solve a public nativity scene debacle by simply moving it 100 feet, off public property and onto a church’s lawn.) They’re a good fit for this story, which brings up political and religious divides in passing but doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts of those very fractious issues.
Hanks’ performance is lightweight and funny, less than his usual Oscar-caliber simply because there isn’t much depth to it until the very end, when Hanks’ patented glassy-eyed sorrow kicks in for a moment or two before the credits roll. The luminous Amy Adams is underused as Charlie’s girl Friday, while Julia Roberts saunters through her five or six scenes (she is a supporting character, not a lead) with the usual flair. It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman who’s the real treat as Gust, a spy so shameless that when he offers his services to Charlie in a sincere desire to help, he can’t resist the urge to bug his office at the same time. No actor currently working is better than Hoffman at playing weaselly, disheveled louts.
It’s a wild and crazy romp through the ’80s until the end, when the Afghans finally defeat the Soviets and the CIA decides it has no further responsibility to help the country rebuild. The film fizzles out then, and the hand-wringing about what we ought to have done post-war feels tacked on. Either explore it in depth or leave it out. Don’t drop it in our laps and scamper away. Cut-and-run is not the American way, not in foreign policy and not in movie-making.
B (1 hr., 37 min.; )