In this season of dour political films, Mike Nichols’ Beltway-based satire about U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghanistan war is a welcome and entertaining diversion that still gets a few well-placed kicks in. It helps that Charlie Wilson’s War is set in the 1980s, amid Cold War anxieties that have long since passed. Also in the plus-column: a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story, adapted from George Crile’s book by top TV scribe Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), bursting with colorful characters and snappy dialogue.
Don’t be fooled by the perfunctory, patriotic opening set in 1989, in which U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) gets an ovation for vanquishing the Soviets. We quickly flashback to 1980 to find Wilson, bimbos and coked-up hangers-on sharing a Las Vegas hot tub; on the TV, a disguised Dan Rather reports from Soviet-invaded Afghanistan.
Wilson is a lightweight, fun-loving congressman from Texas who barely gets his hair ruffled bringing bacon back to his district. Then, he gets a summons from Joanne Herring, a born-again, right-wing Texas socialite, who suggests Wilson funnel black-ops money to the Afghans. He hooks up with Gust Avrakotos, Afghan man at the CIA, and the pair set in motion what becomes a U.S.-funded billion-dollar covert war. The mujahedeen beat back the Soviets — with weapons routed through Pakistan, Israel and Egypt (war, and its profits, make quirky bedfellows) — till, hooray! Wilson wins the Cold War and gets a medal.
This history all occurs in a compact, lively 97 minutes that still finds time for extemporaneous scenes appended largely for our amusement, such as Wilson and Avrakotos’ door-slamming farce of a meeting. Philip Seymour Hoffman, shlubbier than ever, steals every scene as Avrakotos, the angry, uncouth blue-collar spook, who literally crashes through Langley’s Ivy Leagued corridors.
But Hoffman has an able foil in Hanks, whose Wilson parries wide-eyed disingenuousness to Avrakotos’ cynicism. Hanks is too much a likable everyman actor to bring the extra measure of phony-baloney that no career politician should be without, but he makes Wilson’s insouciance infectious. Only Julia Roberts feels miscast as Herring: There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about those Lone Star State big-hairs whose honeyed tones disguise ball-busting that Roberts just doesn’t convey.
Charlie Wilson’s War provides Cliff Notes for those just tuning in, but if you’re old enough to dredge up your own dusty notes about boozy Beltway antics and what Soviet control of this largely unknown country meant, you’ll have more fun.
In some respects, War makes even the worst of geopolitics easy to laugh at, though the final reel — a videogame-ish clip collection of mujahedeen blasting Soviet helicopters out of the sky — should give pause: Raggedy peasants bring a superpower to its knees. And Nichols leaves the sickest joke for you to complete: While this rah-rah secret war helped dismantle our then-mortal enemy, the blowback from our meddling in Afghanistan guaranteed us a new one in Islamic extremists. That’s a barb that stings.
Starts Fri., Dec. 21.