Watching Charlie Wilson’s War is like sitting through a very long episode of The West Wing. Sit back and admire wave after wave of Aaron Sorkin’s glib, knowing banter, his appreciative feel for the rapscallion ways of Beltway politics — until, worn out, you’ll find yourself panting for everyone to pipe down so you can hear yourself think about whether American foreign policy really is all heart and patriotic principle underneath the bluster. Adapted by Sorkin from the best-selling book by the late reporter George Crile, this entertaining romp, directed by Mike Nichols, has elegantly turned bluster to burn, and a host of true-blue American types who don’t even pretend to be flesh and blood. But for a fact-based account of how one rogue congressman connived with a wealthy socialite and a street-smart CIA case officer to chase the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the dying days of the Cold War, the movie’s awareness that it is also the story of how America armed the Taliban comes only as a footnote. Whoopsie!
When it comes to compassion for those less fortunate at home and abroad, The West Wing’s President Bartlet has nothing on “Good-Time Charlie” Wilson (Tom Hanks), a Democratic Texas congressman whose folksy charm and coked-up cavorting with stacked ladies of the evening belie a razor-sharp mind for detail and a liberal’s love of the underdog. After witnessing firsthand what Russian land mines have done to the children of Kabul, he joins forces with his friend and occasional bedmate, Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), and the pugnaciously working-class CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to drum up millions in arms money and corral a pack of uneasy global bedfellows — Israel, Pakistan, Egypt, to name but a flammable few — for a covert operation to arm the mujahedeen and drive the Russkies out of Afghanistan.
Largely performance-driven, Charlie Wilson’s War will delight anyone old enough to remember Hanks’ debut on television’s Bosom Buddies or his scene-stealing turn as the gruff coach in A League of Their Own. Levity becomes this fine actor, and his cheery élan as Charlie relieves him of a certain stuffiness when he takes on soldierly heroes or mentally challenged innocents. Roberts isn’t old or seasoned enough to play wise old bird, and her piled blond beehive makes this radiant brunette look uncomfortably red and raw. But the dry aside she perfected in Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s movies comes in handy as she struts the devoutly religious but worldly millionairess who thinks nothing of tucking in for the night with a sinner like Charlie, especially if the outcome is socking it to the Red Peril. Along with Hoffman, backed up behind a big gut and a scary mustache as the temperamental agent whose wily competence sustains an ongoing class war with his Ivy League superiors, the movie boasts a clutch of delicious ancillary performances, among them Amy Adams as Charlie’s wonky, wide-eyed aide, and a hilariously grumpy Om Puri as Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq.
Laden with broad shtick, including a very funny sequence in which Avrakotos is repeatedly shooed out of Charlie’s office while his “Angels” (whose working motto, “You can teach them how to type, but you can’t teach them how to grow tits,” would have blown many an early-1980s feminist gasket) carry out media damage control over Charlie’s escapades, Charlie Wilson’s War is a rollicking populist caper that panders shamelessly to America’s love of the maverick. Charlie is a creature of his time, attractive to audiences now precisely because he recalls an era when genuine eccentrics, as opposed to whey-faced functionaries, roamed the halls of government. (Imagine crowds flocking to Karl Rove: Dressed to Kill or The Many Loves of Larry Craig.) Given the choice, Nichols — along with much of America — will always choose a loose cannon over an ideologue. But there are mavericks and then there are mavericks, and watching Charlie maneuver around the system, you can almost forget, as our current glorious leadership would have you do, that bucking transparency is rarely a good thing. By nature, Nichols is not an affiliated man, and if that makes him a good satirist, it also makes him a potential reactionary by default. Should we really love the evangelizing, virulently commie-baiting Ms. Herring, who three decades earlier would have kept company with a certain senator from Wyoming? See Charlie Wilson’s War as a period movie if you like, but willy-nilly its most potent, if perfunctory, insights look forward to the present, when the Taliban and their al Qaeda pals are doing just dandy, thank you, and Mr. Putin is hoarding a shiny new cache of nukes. Which goes to show what Nichols never shows — not only that plus ça change . . . , but that history’s road to hell is paved less by bad policies or good intentions than by the unintended consequences of both.
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR | Directed by MIKE NICHOLS | Written by AARON SORKIN, based on the book by GEORGE CRILE | Produced by TOM HANKS and GARY GOETZMAN | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide