Charlie Wilson's War

2007, Movie, R, 97 mins

Review

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR
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Mike Nichols' zesty adaptation of George Crile's best-selling book tells the incredibly strange but mostly true story of Charlie Wilson, a scandal-prone Texas congressman who, with the help of an out-of-favor CIA agent and a larger-than-life Houston socialite, helped chip away at the Soviet Empire by secretly funneling government dollars and weapons into occupied Afghanistan. It’s a smart, hugely entertaining romp through the back channels of power that celebrates the power of the determined individual to alter the course of human events. But the implications and consequences of Wilson's crusade are far more troubling than Nichols or screenwriter Aaron Sorkin care to admit.

Las Vegas, 1980: While soaking in a Caesar's Palace hot tub with a Playboy Playmate (Jud Tylor) and a pair of coke-snorting strippers, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) of Texas' 2nd Congressional District is inspired by a 60 Minutes piece detailing the armed struggle of the fearless Afghan mujahedeen against the brutal Red Army. Charlie, who had just been named to the very powerful Defense Appropriations committee, which oversees the funding of the entire Defense Department and the CIA, decides to do something about it: He demands that the $5 million currently being covertly funneled to the Afghans via the CIA be doubled. The increase is a drop in the bucket in terms of what the Muj really need — like a weapon powerful enough to blow the Soviet's Hind helicopter gunships out of the skies — but Wilson’s heartfelt action catches the attention of Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts, crowned by a Texas-sized wedge of yellow curls), an acquaintance who also happens to be the sixth richest woman in Texas. A proud, card-carrying member of the ultra-conservative, virulently anti-Communist Minutewomen from way back, Joanne is far too right of liberal-living and -thinking Charlie Wilson, but she's a deeply passionate Soviet hater who’s been putting her fund-raising talents, deep pockets and obvious charms toward helping Pakistani president Mohammed Zia ul-Haq (Om Puri) help his Afghan neighbors. Joanne calls Charlie with a favor to ask: She'd like him to personally see to it that the Soviets are forced out of Afghanistan. Meanwhile in Langley, Virginia, Greek-American CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has just told his boss (John Slattery) to piss off for the second time. Congressional investigations, budget cuts and a Carter-era effort to clean up the Agency's tarnished image have left the CIA an underfunded shadow of its former self, and Gust, a rough, working-class street-fighter who never quite fit in with the Ivy League "cake eaters" in the elite Clandestine Services, feels the Agency's pain. Gust winds up chief of South Asia Operations, a group responsible for, among other things, Afghanistan, and soon finds himself in Charlie Wilson's office hammering out a strategy to put the hurt on the Soviets. Using Charlie's savvy in getting the Appropriations Committee to sign off on covert ops, Gust and Charlie wind up brokering an unheard of, top-secret deal with the Israelis and their mortal enemies — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — to move their stockpile of Soviet weapons into the hands of the Mujahedeen. But there's another war brewing on the home front: That night in Vegas hasn't quite stayed in Vegas. Allegations of drug use have surfaced in Washington, and now Charlie faces a potentially career-ending investigation into accusations of drug use spearheaded by a relentless young prosecutor with a career to make: one by the name of Rudolph Giuliani.

Crediting these three with the take down of the USSR is a bit of a stretch, but it is an amazing story that Sorkin tells well, streamlining and telescoping incidents into a fast-paced, walk-and-talk political comedy not unlike the West Wing. On paper the casting seems off — towering-Texan Wilson has been described as a walking, talking Marlboro Man — but surprisingly, Hanks has enough charisma to pull it off, and for once, Roberts' hard edge is just right for a woman of a certain age who's used to getting exactly what she wants. But Nichols fails to appreciate just how sinister the whole thing really is: That fact that a relatively unknown congressman could set up a superpower's foreign policy with only the help of a rogue agent and a nutty Texas socialite who has more political influence than any unelected official should hold is the stuff of conspiracy theories. And while Nichols and Sorkin end on a calculatedly ambivalent note about the future, they stop well short of condemning anyone except the faceless congressmen who screwed up the "endgame." With 20/20 9/11 hindsight, it's clear that covertly arming the Mujahedeen wasn’t such a good idea after all, but neither Nichols nor Sorkin wants to spoil the fun. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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