Charlie Wilson's War
directed by Mike Nichols
(Universal, 2007)

So now we know: The Cold War ended in a hot tub. We know because Charlie Wilson's War tells us so.

And it might not have happened at all, it seems, if Wilson (Tom Hanks), then a congressman from Texas, hadn't crawled into that Las Vegas hot tub to talk to one Crystal Lee (Jud Tylor) about the possibility of his backing her in a Dallas-style TV series set in Washington, D.C. But Wilson's mind never really seemed to be on the Playboy bunny next to him in the tub: Rather it was on Rather in a turban -- Dan Rather in a turban, that is, delivering a report from Afghanistan about the Soviet invasion on a TV by the hot tub.

There are, it seems, some advantages to attention-deficit disorder.

Back in Washington, Wilson, whose office staff would put the best of harems to shame, immediately sets out to double U.S. spending on the ground in Afghanistan, where the CIA is supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets, from $5 million to $10 million. And he's pretty proud of himself until he gets a call from wealthy Baptist babe Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), whom he apparently knows in both the financial and the biblical sense.

Herring, a cash-heavy campaign contributor, also has adopted the plight of the Afghans as her cause, and she's decided $10 million isn't even a good start. And before you know it, Wilson is up to his neck in a lot more than hot tubs.

Charlie Wilson's War, which is based on a true story, is the work of more talented people than most of us meet in a lifetime.

It's directed by Mike Nichols, a theater director who broke into movies 42 years ago with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, then gave us The Graduate and Silkwood, among others. The script is by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men -- both the play and the screenplay -- as well as multiple episodes of Sports Night and West Wing. And it's based on the book by George Crile, whose credits include four decades of work on CBS Reports, 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II.

Then there's Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, a CIA operative who's so CIA that even the CIA doesn't trust him. Hoffman has made a career of playing outsiders, especially annoying outsiders, and here he's hell-bent on annoying to death just about anyone who won't get behind his all-out effort to back the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan -- or even those who will.

"What's your problem with me?" Herring asks him in one scene.

"You know," Avrakotos fires back, "I've found, in my business, that when people with time on their hands get involved in politics, I start forgetting who I'm supposed to be shooting at."

Wilson gets his chance to tweak the language, too, as when he describes his meeting with then-Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (Om Puri). "You know you've reached rock bottom," he says, "when you're told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup."

But it's Wilson's exchanges with the ever-impatient Herring that Hanks takes to the next level. "Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?" Herring asks him. "Tradition, mostly," Wilson replies.

Throw in some plot complications -- Wilson gets caught up in a sex-and-drugs scandal being probed by some New York D.A. named Giuliani -- and some great camel-laden scenery by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (Prince of Tides, Batman Forever) that's guaranteed to make you wonder how so many people can possibly live in a land where no one can live at all, and you have a film that looks as good as it sounds and sounds as good as it looks.

If there's a place where Charlie Wilson's War comes up short, it might be in its reluctance to look at the dark side of what its characters are doing. The Afghan resistance movement that Wilson, Herring and Avrakotos were so eager to fund -- to the tune, eventually, of $1 billion -- quickly morphed into the Taliban, who may have helped bring down communism by chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but soon proved the kind of ally you'd rather do without.

Nichols' film suggests that on two or three occasions, most notably in Avrakotos' Zen parable about a boy who gets a pony. But it quickly moves on.

Even so, Charlie Wilson's War is a work of genius -- make that multiple geniuses. It's funny, it's fast, it's infuriating at times. It's insightful and irreverent. And have I mentioned that Wilson's all-female staff was nicknamed Charlie's Angels?

It's kind of like Dallas, you know. But set in Washington.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

9 January 2009

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