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“Charlie Wilson’s War” is the anti-“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In Frank Capra’s political fable, a naive and idealistic man gets appointed to fill a Senate seat, runs into corruption and hardball politics but perseveres through sheer goodness. In this film, directed by Mike Nichols in one of his most satirical moods and scripted by Hollywood’s most politically astute writer Aaron Sorkin, a womanizing, alcoholic, easily tempted bachelor gets elected in a Texas district that doesn’t care what he does as long as he brings home the bacon. He parties through several terms but uses his influence-peddling skills to fund a clandestine overseas operation that, the movie insists, helps bring down the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union.
This outrageous tale of 1980s-era good corruption, apparently largely true and all the more outrageous for that, might be the perfect antidote to today’s shrill political scene with Republicans and Democrats staking out intractable positions and accomplishing little. Viewers of nearly all political stripes can get behind Charlie Wilson of Texas’ 2nd District, who solves problems with the common sense and sweet talking absent from today’s Beltway scene. The film’s demographics skew over 25, but the boxoffice reception looks promising.
Tom Hanks, the star and producer, doesn’t suggest a big, booming Texan with larger-than-life appetites, but he nails the wit and political savvy of this sheep in wolves’ clothing. Julia Roberts, as Joanne Herring — one of the wealthiest woman in Texas, Charlie’s occasional lover and avid anti-communist — has always known how to play Southern women who can snatch apples away from snakes. It’s actually a small role but a red-hot coil from which all the action springs. As the third member of a intrepid triumvirate, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a striking contrast to the loquacious Southerners as a hot-tempered, blue-collar CIA agent on the Afghanistan desk who knows all the shady international characters who can help get the Soviets out of that country.
“Charlie Wilson’s War” is political drama played as comedy and true life as satire. Sorkin’s script comes loaded with computable comic lines. One of the best happens when Charlie departs an audience with Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq (Om Puri) and mutters to exec assistant Bonnie (a sweetly savvy Amy Adams), “I was told I had character flaws by a guy who hung his predecessor in a military coup.”
It seems that back in 1980, the congressman, on the verge of a drug investigation, is summoned by Joanne to a fundraiser back home, where she implores him to join her cause: ridding Afghanistan from the cruel Soviet occupation, a cause Official Washington can’t embrace because funding the insurgents, the Mujahideen, would bring international scrutiny. Washington in those days preferred their wars to be cold rather than hot.
A few whiskeys and her sexual charm more than win Charlie’s promise to visit President Zia. And Zia shames him into visiting the refugee camps and hospitals on the Pakistan border, which overwhelm his sense of compassion and desire to help the underdog. He hooks up with Greek-American CIA spook Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), whose long years overseas means he knows the best arms advisor in the Pentagon — who happens to be a 29-year-old chess champion — the bests dealer in Russian arms — who happens to be Israeli — and can get the Israeli to sit down with Arab middlemen in Cairo, where Charlie can supply the best American bellydancer. Everyone has his talent.
Because of his appointment to the House’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Charlie eventually increases spending on covert operations in Afghanistan from $5 million to $1 billion annually and the Red Army after nine years decamps. All this is told with the lightning speed of a sitcom, which breezes by the tedious chores of arm-twisting, horse-trading, endless phone calls and the like. The film undoubtedly gives too much credit to Charlie and ignores all other geopolitical factors, but the heart of the story, based on a book by the late, award-winning journalist George Crile, rings true. The real world often operates like fiction, and in this case it’s a comedy.
Nichols presides over top Hollywood professionals who produce a slick version of the ’80s political landscape as Charlie globe-trots from one action zone to another. There isn’t a lot of depth beneath the surface with this approach, but just enough to convey that Charlie possesses a better foreign policy mind than just about anyone in the State Department or Pentagon. Even when he is first seen in a Las Vegas hot tub sipping whiskey with strippers and a Hollywood “producer,” Charlie is more interested in what Dan Rather is saying on TV.
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR
Universal Pictures presents in association with Relativity Media and Participant Prods. a Playtone production
Director: Mike Nichols
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Based on the book by: George Crile
Producers: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
Executive producer: Celia Costas, Ryan Kavanaugh, Jeff Skoll
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Victor Kempster
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky
Editors: John Bloom, Antonia Van Drimmelen
Charlie Wilson: Tom Hanks
Joanne Herring: Julia Roberts
Gust Avrakotos: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Bonnie Bach: Amy Adams
President Zia: Om Puri
Running time — 101 minutes
No MPAA rating
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