“Charlie Wilson’s War” is about the beginning of the end. Or what might be the end.
But as directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Aaron Sorkin, the film shows that in the beginning there were good intentions. Along with bad habits. Very bad habits. To quote John Mellencamp, “Ain’t that America?”
Based on the non-fiction book by the late “60 Minutes” producer George Crile, “Charlie Wilson’s War” tells how a Texas congressman ended the Cold War and inadvertently opened the door to an even bigger mess. This is one fun son-of-a-gun of a movie, populated by outrageous characters, back-room politics and international wheeler-dealering.
In 1980, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a U.S. congressman from Texas who spends much of his time cavorting with strippers and dallying with starlets. His office staff is all female; the staffers look as though they’d never be kept waiting outside the club du jour.
But Charlie also has a strong interest in international politics, and he has managed to get himself on a number of powerful committees. And, during his time in Congress, he also has managed to rack up several IOUs from players who can pay up big time.
So when Charlie takes an interest in the Afghan freedom fighters who are struggling against the Russian troops that have invaded their country, he’s in a position to do something about it. Allied with Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), who’s determined to put an end to the evil Commies once and for all, and disillusioned CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Charlie maneuvers through risky political waters to get guns to the Afghans.
He juggles Democrats and Republicans while Gust finagles deals between Israelis and Pakistanis. And all the while Charlie’s enduring an attack on the home front by some eager beaver named Rudy Giuliani.
It’s been a long time since a movie has made politics look fun. Even Nichols’ “Primary Colors” had its sluggish side. “Charlie” is a reminder of what it feels like when pompous nimrods get served and the kids take over the schoolyard.
Impressively, Hanks fits right in, playing the free-spirited Charlie as sort of a more mature version of his Lawrence Whatley Bourne III in “Volunteers.” He’s convincing as a bon vivant and as a patriot.
Roberts doesn’t get a lot to do, but she looks the very image of a conservative, drop-dead gorgeous Texas titan, and she delivers her lines with relish.
Hoffman, whose stellar year has included great performances in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “The Savages,” steals his scenes with ease. He seems an unlikely casting choice as Gust, yet he makes the character as cynical, unsavory and brilliant as could be.
Even though the conclusion is bittersweet — on screen and in real life — “Charlie Wilson’s War” offers 97 minutes of reveling in America’s outlaw spirit. Ah, if only we could return to those good ol’ days.
Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use.
Four and a half stars (out of five).